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What’s Wrong With Black History Month?

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Every year, when the month of February rolls around, there is one thing on the lesson plan in public schools: Black History Month. History classes teach about the Civil War and how President Lincoln freed the slaves, and then jump to the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the lives of Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. English classes look at the speeches of Dr. King, and perhaps at the autobiography of Frederick Douglass. Every February, schools across the nation discuss these same few events and these select few persons, with little, if any, variation.

Some people think that Black History Month is a great thing, while others are more skeptical. The idea of it is great—children should be educated in the history of many diverse cultures. However, in practice, Black History Month is a letdown.

The first problem is that it is only a month long. Schoolchildren learn about American and European—that is, white—history from September through January, and again from March through June. Yet black history is just as long, just as varied, and just as interesting as this white history. Indeed, humanity originated in Northern Africa and the “fertile crescent” of the Middle East, regions that were populated by people who, today, we would probably call “black.” Instead of devoting one single month to the study of black history, shouldn’t it be taught alongside our current Eurocentric history? And furthermore, if we have to separate black history into its own month, why do we give it the shortest month of the year?

The other flaw of Black History Month is the limited scope of what is taught in that time period. Black history is filled with many great artists, writers, musicians, and political figures. Yet the schools focus on only a few of these: Dr. King, Rosa Parks, and Frederick Douglass. While these people, and the actions they undertook, are important to study, there are others who deserve to be taught as well.

In school, children are taught about the American and French Revolutions, but there is no mention of Toussaint L’Ouverture’s Haitian Revolution, nor of Nat Turner’s slave rebellion in America. No mention is made of how the leaders of the Haitian Revolution were inspired by the events of the American Revolution, and how the Americans, out of fear, helped to cripple the newly-born nation with trade embargoes.

The writings of Frederick Douglass are often assigned to students, but how many classes assign Richard Wright’s Native Son, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, or the poems of Langston Hughes? Music courses look at Beethoven and Pachelbel, but ignore the virtuosity of Charlie “Bird” Parker, Dexter Gordon, and Miles Davis.

Social studies courses look at Frederick Douglass’s influence in the abolition movement and at Martin Luther King’s and Rosa Parks’s involvement in the civil rights movement. But these have not been the only influential African-Americans in history. Oftentimes, students reach college having never heard of such great black thinkers and leaders as W.E.B. DuBois or Marcus Garvey. And while students may have heard of Malcolm X, they often don’t know what his teachings were. Stokely Carmichael, Huey P. Newton, and Bobby Seale are other names that, unfortunately, are often unknown. And while students hear about the evils of slavery and Jim Crow, other important historical events are ignored: good things such as the Harlem Renaissance and troubling things such as the Tuskegee experiments are either glossed over or skipped completely.

It is true that any student who is interested can do his or her own reading on these topics. But that is true of all studies, yet every high school student is still made to study the classics of English literature, as well as the lives of important white leaders. It is a sad state of affairs that every February, from kindergarten to the senior year of high school, students are taught about the same handful of important African-American figures. At the very least, the scope of Black History Month should be broadened; ideally, the month-long period would be done away with, and black history, literature, and art would be taught alongside the more traditional studies.

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About Mike King

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/alan-kurtz/ Alan Kurtz

    As I understand it, Black History Month traces its origins to African-American historian Carter G. Woodson (1875-1950), who originally proposed it as “Negro History Week.” His concept has been celebrated as Black History Month every February since 1976.

    But who decides these things? It doesn’t involve an official national holiday, such as Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, which is observed on the third Monday of January. So I doubt the federal government is behind Black History Month.

    And that being the case, how could we get rid of it even if there was a broad consensus to do so? Mike says doing away with Black History Month would be ideal, but he doesn’t tell us how to accomplish that.

  • Arch Conservative

    What about native American history month?

    It seems like you are cherry picking events from history that you’re particulkalry interested in mr. King. The simple fact is that so much has happened in the history of our nation and the world at large that it would be impossible to cover everything and because of this someone is bound to feel left out and offended. Too bad!

    It’s a moot point anyhow. Our k-12 public education system is such a joke anyhow. Most public schools are failing to deliver anything even remotely resmbling a quality education. By the time the average student graduates from high school with 8th grade reading and writing skills, they get to head off to college where the brains are pumped full of leftist revisionist history by some fossil from the 60’s who may have put a shirt and tie on but still holds a grudge against Nixon.

  • Arch ConscienceStain

    they get to head off to college where the brains are pumped full of leftist revisionist history by some fossil from the 60’s who may have put a shirt and tie on but still holds a grudge against Nixon.

    And somehow you managed to avoid all of that so that you can pump the world full of your right-wing, spittle-inflected “truth.” You hold a grudge against anybody one molecule to the left of Barry Goldwater and we’re supposed to listen to you spew on incessantly?

    Seriously, are you “conservatives” ever FOR anything…other than bitching about how horrible “the left” is?

  • STM

    How about early immigrants from England and Wales month, Scottish month, Polish month, Irish month, Italian month, The new wave of sub-continent and middle-eastern migrants month, Asian month, Hispanic month.

    I am not suggesting, though, that anyone ditch their cultural background. It being America, joining in and remembering aren’t mutually exclusive.

    But the longer everyone continues to want to differentiate themselves from everyone else, the longer it’ll be before America actually really does become post-racial America.

    There’s a black bloke in the White House, for God’s sake. Isn’t he the one who talks about a post-racial America; so isn’t he just an American, like everyone else?

  • http://jonsobel.com/ Jon Sobel

    Tricky question – Black History Month does, as you point out, sort of ghettoize the study of “black history,” but maybe it’s better than hoping for it to be integrated into the overall curriculum, because somehow that doesn’t seem likely to happen anytime soon.

  • twf

    A part of black history is the story of Toussaint L’Ouverture from Haiti who fought against the French oppressors and the slave trade. A dramatized clip of his last moments in prison is found here. This is from the film “The Last Days of Toussaint L’Ouverture.”