Los Angeles Times
Black History Month is a century-old relic — one we still desperately need
Growing right-wing attacks on teaching America’s racial history are one reason the observance remains important
During the first term of Barack Obama’s presidency, my then 8-year-old daughter asked a simple question. “Why do Black people have a special month?”
I responded with a mini-lecture on the transatlantic slave trade, Jim Crow and the efforts of the Harvard-educated historian Carter G. Woodson, who championed Negro History Week. She calmly took it in and responded with another question: “When the bad men were kidnapping people from Africa and turning them into slaves, was the president Black?”
I laughed, although her question made perfect sense. The only president she had known was Black; so why couldn’t a Black person have served as president before the Civil War? Afterward, I found myself reflecting on her underlying point. Why, in modern America, do we even have Black History Month?
In a 2013 newspaper column, Cynthia Tucker suggested that Black History Month might be a bit passe. Designating a Black month made sense when “official history” in effect ignored Black Americans: “In such a hostile landscape, black Americans desperately needed an acknowledgment of their patriotism, enterprise and ingenuity.” Since Tucker’s column was published, things have changed, with some Republican politicians declaring war on efforts to teach the truth of America’s racial past in order to explain the present.
It was these truths that Woodson sought to illuminate at a time when whites, for the most part, considered Blacks to be brutes whose highest purpose was to serve whites: “It is our job to get the truth of Negro history over first to Negroes, who for generations have been told they have no history, and then to take the truth to white people,” Woodson told a group of educators in a 1926 speech.
In history books, pointed out Woodson, “the African is portrayed as a savage, matted, thick lips, with rings in her ears. The Caucasian is represented by a photograph of Bismarck or Shakespeare.” Woodson saw this as “propaganda, a systematized plan to educate the world ... that the African was only intended to become a hewer of wood and a drawer of water.”
Five years later, Woodson wrote an article in the Baltimore Afro-American accusing Southern officials of actively promoting ignorance. Certain school districts, he claimed, were firing Black teachers who taught the Constitution. Their fear: “If the Negroes read the Constitution of the United States, they may learn to contend for the rights therein guaranteed.”
Over the years, many others called out efforts to promote ignorance of racial reality. In 1944, the Chicago Defender accused the U.S. War Department of refusing to distribute a pamphlet debunking white supremacy because the “South Doesn’t Want Soldiers to Read About Negroes” of accomplishment. Three years later, the Baltimore Afro-American dismissed most public school history books as “[p]oisonous propaganda degrading the race and holding it up to ridicule.” Virtually all texts “praise the Ku Klux Klan for its vicious connivings during the Reconstruction Period” and “describe minorities as lazy, ignorant and irresponsible.”
Since those days, considerable effort has gone into making textbooks less one-sided, more inclusive and generally more honest about the nation’s racial history. But of late, those efforts have been stymied by politicians fearful that an honest accounting of history will somehow damage sensitive, self-blaming white schoolchildren.
Numerous books have been in effect banned; and examination of such lives as Margaret Garner’s have been forbidden. Garner escaped enslavement in Kentucky in the 1850s by fleeing, with her children and husband, to Ohio. Facing recapture, she slit her daughter’s throat rather than see the girl enslaved. Her story inspired “Beloved,” a novel by Toni Morrison that has become a particular target of book banners. At least 18 states, according to Axios, have “enacted legislation to limit the teaching of ‘divisive concepts’ ” about race in the last two years.
This January, 650 African American studies teachers and administrators signed a letter condemning Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ move to reject the Advanced Placement African American studies curriculum, which he had claimed lacked educational value. The educators accused DeSantis of trying “to deny the young citizens of his state the world-class education to which they have a right.” They noted that “the contention that an AP curriculum in African American Studies ‘lacks educational value’ is a proposition supported by white supremacist ideology, because it fundamentally demeans the history, culture, and contributions of Black people.”
Woodson understood that knowing about the history of race in America is crucial to understanding America itself. That insight is as valid today as it was 100 years ago. Such knowledge is essential to understanding the stereotypes that allow many law enforcement officials to see Black and brown men as threatening brutes, and to explaining why racist tropes are so prominent in our politics and why huge racial disparities still persist.
Black History Month is indeed a relic of another age. We should not require a special month to understand the past that created the present — or to celebrate the achievement of African Americans. But if keeping that relic reminds us of the danger of promoting ignorance, it serves a valuable purpose: pointing us in the direction of understanding the racial problems in this country that have never been solved.
Ellis Cose is the author of 13 books including “Race and Reckoning: From Founding Fathers to Today’s Disruptors,” “The Short Life and Curious Death of Free Speech in America” and “The Rage of a Privileged Class.” He is also the creator and director of Renewing American Democracy.