Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice thanks singers and dancers from the Duke Ellington School of the Arts during a Black History Month event at the U.S. State Department in Washington D.C. last month.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice thanks singers and dancers from the Duke Ellington School of the Arts during a Black History Month event at the U.S. State Department in Washington D.C. last month. Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images
So February is over. Does America feel more informed about black history since 28 days ago?
Does it ever at this time of year? Or, to the extent that America is informed about the history of black people this week, is it any more so than it was last September, or last Thanksgiving or last, say, May 21? Assuming, for a moment, that America was about as informed about black history last May 21 as it is this week — and let's face it, it is — to what extent is that due to anything that happened during Black History Month this year? Or any year, at least lately?
Yes, I am going to suggest that Black History Month has outlived its usefulness, as have many others. I suggest governments let go of the genuflective proclamations, and that schools not pay special attention to black history in February, as opposed to year-round. Note: I'm writing about its current "usefulness." The point is not that Black History Month never should have existed, nor that black history isn't important.
More specifically, I submit: Black history is no longer meaningfully neglected by mainstream America. We must be realistic about what it would mean for America to acknowledge the role blacks have played in America's history and let go of Black History Month: Surely, we are not waiting for all Americans to be able to do mini-recitations of the histories of A. Philip Randolph and Phyllis Wheatley, or be cognizant of the fact that there was slavery in New York City.
After all, this is a country where we regularly hear complaints that mainstream Americans barely know facts such as when the Revolutionary War was. The question is whether mainstream America has incorporated a basic awareness of black history into the hazy mental filmstrip of the national historical consciousness. From what I see, it has.
We can take it as far back as 15 years for evidence. It was, as they say, the little things that told the story. A traveling museum exhibit of the Henrietta Marie slave-ship artifacts was launched in 1995 and broke attendance records in 20 cities over the next decade. The organizers of a 2001 centennial celebration of the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, N.Y., highlighted the racially discriminatory side of the original event.
In 2002 there was more of the same thing for those interested. Washington State Rep. Hans Dunshee, a white man, agitated to have Confederate leader Jefferson Davis' name removed from a Seattle highway and replaced by the name of black Civil War veteran William P. Stewart. Underground Railroad buffs in Ohio decried historical distortions in a Cincinnati National Underground Railroad Freedom Center under planning; they were white.
The sheer below-the-radar obscurity of these things is their value, as well as the fact that in any given year, there are countless similar phenomena going on. They show that an awareness of black history has penetrated our national consciousness in a way that would have pleased Carter G. Woodson, who inaugurated Negro History Week in 1926. They go on and on: In 2004, white historian Eric Rauchway wrote a book about that Buffalo Exposition, quite unconnected from the aforementioned commemoration planners, memorably highlighting the black man who made a valiant effort to rescue President William McKinley from an assassin's bullet.
And a larger turn of events tells the same story. After all, we now have a National Museum of African American History and Culture — which will have its own location on the Mall in Washington, D.C., by 2015. Surely that, along with the funding it has been granted and the considerable national publicity it attracts, indicates some uptick in acceptance that black history is part of American history.
Or what about the Pulitzer that Isabel Wilkerson's chronicle of the Great Migration, The Warmth of Other Suns, will likely get? Also, imagine telling, say, Stokely Carmichael in 1967 that in 2010, a book about the harvesting of a black woman's cancer cells (Rebecca Skloot's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks) would be as ecstatically received as Wilkerson's and be made into a film?
The days when black history could be described as marginalized in American life are now, themselves, history. Yet somehow we hold on to a delicate contradiction under which all of the things I have mentioned and so much more are true, but we say that America is still "insufficiently aware of" black history. Isn't it really just that we're used to Black History Month, the way we're used to an old armchair? It's no longer that we think it's accomplishing anything. It's just, in our minds, supposed to be there because it always has been.
It is often charged that a writer chooses a stance like this one out of a recreational quest to be "controversial." Maybe some do, but that's not where this is coming from. Writing, for me, is not a matter of sitting down and working up ways to make people angry. I simply write what I feel, with a suspicion that I am not alone, and I almost never am.
Black History Month has accomplished what it was established to do, and part of acknowledging that is to let it go — with a spirit of joy and victory. Do I think it's an issue of code-red importance that every February we pretend that America learns anything serious about black history? Of course not. But since about 1995, what Black History Month has reminded me every year is that the battle it was designed for has been won. Maybe we can think of it as a month celebrating America's having come to celebrate black history.
Stranger things have happened; things develop new uses — Kleenex was invented as a makeup remover.
John McWhorter is a regular contributor to The Root.