Let me just get one thing out of the way.
I hate Black History Month.
It isn’t that I don’t enjoy the harmonic voices ringing from schoolhouses in February, when children sing Afro-centric songs. For me, there is nothing more beautiful than a little brown boy, dressed in his Sunday best, reciting passages from Margaret Walker’s For My People. It is important for children of every race and ethnicity to understand our full American story. Black history is certainly an integral part of that.
For 28 days each year, we celebrate world-class inventors like Garrett Morgan, who developed the first traffic signal and gas masks. Few know that he was the first African-American in Cleveland, Ohio to own a car. But for a little while, for 28 days, we shine the light on black people like Morgan, Fannie Lou Hamer, W.E.B. DuBois, Thurgood Marshall, Ida B. Wells and Sojourner Truth who altered the course of our collective history.
Together, they and others built bridges where none had existed before. They led us through muddy river valleys, steered us along the rocky ridges of racial injustice. They pressed us to embrace the mountaintop as an attainable destination– if not for them, if not for us, then for our children and theirs.
Carter G. Woodson, himself the son of a Virginia slave and who went on to earn a doctorate from Harvard, founded Black History Month in 1926. February was chosen not for its brevity but to honor the births of President Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. From its inception, its guiding focus was to change the way history is taught in U.S. public schools.
“If a race has no history, it has no worthwhile tradition,” he said at the time. “It becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated.”
Woodson dedicated his life to the study and promotion of the contributions made by people of African descent. That history, he knew, was a necessary beacon burning in the night to light our way forward. He not only sought to impact the way history is taught, he wanted to ensure that there would be generations of good and able stewards. In 1915, he created the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History to train future historians. For him, the ability to collect, preserve and publish documentation of those contributions was critical.
It still is.
So why do I hate the month-long celebration?
Because nearly 100 years after Woodson first began training historians, most fifth graders in this country cannot pick him out of a crowd. If shown a photograph of Fannie Lou Hamer, those same fifth graders would likely struggle to identify her by name and could not tell you that Hamer helped organize the Mississippi Freedom Summer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, that she was later instrumental in the grassroots beginnings of Head Start and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign. That is, if they know anything about the Poor People’s Campaign at all.
I hate Black History Month because, despite what the pseudo colorblind merchants of Americanism will tell you, it is still necessary.
All 28 days.
More troubling to me is that the rich historical threads that make up the American tapestry are not already embedded in basic curricula. American history is a diverse as the people who lived it, the people who changed it, the people who fought, bled and sometimes died for it. We are obligated to tell the story, even the most painful chapters.
Upon receiving the Diversity Award from the Directors Guild of America Hollywood producer Shonda Rhimes, the creator of Scandal, Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice, said it plainly. “While I’m still really and truly profoundly honored to receive this award, but I was also a little pissed off,” she told the audience.
“We’re a little pissed off because there still needs to be an award. Like there’s such a lack of people hiring women and minorities that when someone does it on a regular basis, they are given an award.”
Rhimes gave voice to frustrations shared not only in the television and film industry, but in the broader society. Black History Month sometimes feels like a hall pass.
The first essay I ever wrote was a Black History Month assignment in my 8th grade honors English class. Peggy Lewis-LeCompte, my teacher that year and the next, helped me to refine the writing and ready it for a speech competition. It would be the first of dozens of local, regional, statewide and national contests I would go on to win. In so many ways, my professional life was launched in a high school gymnasium during a speech and debate tournament. And it started with three, typewritten, double-spaced pages on international singer, actress and dancer Eartha Kitt.
In my travels, I came face to face with people I had only known from the annual black history calendar. People like Katherine Dunham, then-Chicago mayor Harold Washington and Rev. Jesse Jackson. Washington leaned back in his chair and I regaled him with my plans to become mayor of my own hometown, East St. Louis. “You are a marvel,” he said. “I expect great things from you.” Washington died a few weeks later. I can still hear his laughter.
Today, children around the country are writing first essays of their own. And for that I am glad.
However, I cannot help but hope for a time when African-American history becomes more than a set-aside program. Like Rhimes, I look forward to a day when it becomes unnecessary. Understanding how we came together will help us learn how to better live together.
Editor’s Note: This has been a #breakingBLACK column. Goldie Taylor is a featured Grio columnist and her #breakingBlack columns will regularly appear every Monday. Follow Goldie Taylor on Twitter at @GoldieTaylor, and join the discussion at @theGrio with the hashtag #BreakingBlack.