Do We Need A Black History Month?

Chicago Tribune columnist Dawn Turner Trice talks about the relevance of black history month.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

What was once Black History Week started in 1926 amid widespread segregation and discrimination, when lynching remained all too common and perceptions of inferiority obscured the contributions of African-Americans. A great deal has changed over the past 80 years, and in a column for the Chicago Tribune earlier this month, Dawn Turner Trice asked, is Black History Month still needed? Dawn Turner Trice writes the Exploring Race column for the Chicago Tribune. We've spoken with her several times over the past year. So, today we can introduce her as one of our regulars on Talk of the Nation. She joins us from the studios of Chicago Public Radio. And nice to have you aboard formally.

DAWN TURNER TRICE: Well, thank you. I'm glad to be here.

CONAN: And we're certainly glad you're not going to be provocative at all. Is Black History Month must still relevant?

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Give us a call, 800-989-8255; email, talk@npr.org. There's a conversation at our Web site, too. That's at npr.org, just click on Talk of the Nation. And a fellow columnist, Cynthia Tucker, raised a similar question in her column in the Atlanta Journal Constitution and said that Black History Month now seems quaint, jarring and anachronistic. The nation of Tiger Woods, Oprah and Barack Obama, she added, no longer needs a Black History Month.

TURNER TRICE: Absolutely. And, well - and I understand that point of view. And every year that question is asked, do we need a Black History Month? Is it relevant? And this year, with the historic inauguration of Barack Obama, it was a question that we really - I think we gave little more weight to. And - but I do think - and I've heard from many readers who have said that African-American history should be merged with American history, because it cheapens one or both to segregate one from the other. So, there's a lot of conversation regarding this.

But I think that one of the things that's key is that we, as a country, still aren't all that well-versed in black history. There are groups of people - and maybe conservatives mostly - often make simplistic references to Martin Luther King's comments about color blind society. And they forget or don't realize that King also vehemently opposed the Vietnam War for moral reasons, but thought that money and other - that money and other money should be redirected or redistributed to deal with black poverty. So, I think that we often miss the nuances and the complications of black history, and we still have a lot to learn.

CONAN: Some people would argue we're - Americans are not particularly well-versed in history, period…

TURNER TRICE: Absolutely (Laughing).

CONAN: Much less black history, so…

TURNER TRICE: That's true.

CONAN: Maybe just have History Month, or that indeed, again, extending Cynthia Tucker's argument, every month should be Black History Month.

TURNER TRICE: Yeah, absolutely. And the concern is that beyond the - I think there's another element to this, and that's that there is still this drumbeat of negative images about young black males in particular that tend to define the black community. And one can make the argument that at least - you know, that there is this time at least once a year that there's an opportunity to kind of do some remarketing or a new marketing campaign to show people inside and outside of the black community - to show blacks in a different light. And so, I agree with what Cynthia Tucker is saying in that regard. I mean, it should be - we would benefit to have every month be Black History Month. But this is an opportunity to highlight history.

CONAN: When you opened the conversation with your readers online, what kind of responses have you been getting?

TURNER TRICE: They were fair - there was enough readers who were just very disturbed at the whole notion that we still have a Black History Month. But these are readers who are often disturbed by the idea that there is still an N-double-A-CP, which, by the way, celebrates its 100th anniversary of its founding today. And this whole idea that blacks need something separate in order to continue to go forward is very jarring to a lot of readers. But then, there other readers who understand that there're still - there are various segments of the population, whether it's black people - young black people or other people, who just still kind of don't get it, and they're missing a lot of the - a lot of pieces of the puzzle.

CONAN: Here's an email from Nathan in Portland, Oregon. Black History Month, he writes, will likely be necessary until President Obama and Tiger Woods are history themselves.

TURNER TRICE: That's - I think, that's a good point. It's still very - we're still very new at all of this. And I think - and it's true, we do have Oprah and Barack - President Obama - and Tiger Woods, and we've come a long way. And again, I'll go back to what we've been saying for some time now - we've come a long way, but there's still a long way to go.

CONAN: Let's get some callers on the line. Our guest, Dawn Turner Trice of the Chicago Tribune, and Talk of the Nation. Is Black History Month still relevant? 800-989-8255; email, talk@npr.org. James on the line with us from San Antonio.

JAMES (Caller): Yes, I'm a white kid who went to a pretty affluent public high school. And I think it's incredibly relevant, because even taking GT classes, we didn't learn about - we learned about three black people basically - Martin Luther King, Nat Turner and briefly, Malcolm X. And until more important - or more comprehensive people like, you know, David Walker and, you know, Sojourner Truth - until there's - until more people are integrated into the curriculum, I don't think that we need to get rid of Black History Month yet.

CONAN: There's an argument, James, that some people make that, in fact, by having Black History Month, it allows educators to segregate out that part of the history books and keep it separate from the regular text books, because they know they're going to teach it in the syllabus come February.

JAMES: Well, I think you don't throw the baby out with the bath water. You start integrating it in - because it is American history; there should be no delineation. But if I can go through a national Blue Ribbon school and take GT history classes and not hear about Marcus Garvey and Sojourner Truth and David Walker and important people like this until college, there's obviously some kind of disconnect. And so, I think it needs to stay around until, you know, until those people are included.

CONAN: Dawn?

TURNER TRICE: Yes. And I absolutely agree. Professor Eric Arneson here in Chicago wrote a wonderful piece for us that dealt with the - how people who even - some of the stories that we are - we think that we're well-versed in - regarding African-American history, whether it is MLK - and who can't recite his "I Have a Dream" speech? - or some other prominent black figures, we still just don't know enough about them. And often we have politicians who throw out various incidents or names - and I'm thinking about the Democratic primary when there was this dustup between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama over who was more important, President Johnson or MLK, during the Civil Rights movement. And we just - we still don't get it. I think we just don't know the - understand the nuances. And you're very right. I mean history - we as a country are kind of - we aren't very well-versed on history in general. But I do think that we're even more lacking still on black history.

CONAN: James, thanks very much for the call.

JAMES: Thank you. Appreciate it.

CONAN: Bye-bye. And let's go now to - this is Gwen, Gwen with us from Fort Wayne, Indiana.

GWEN (Caller): Yes, I am. What you're saying is right on. My husband is 54. He's from Atlanta, Georgia, and I'm from Illinois. And the knowledge that he has on black history, compared to what I have, being raised in the north, are like night and day. He'll say something, and I'll say, what are you talking about? So now, here we are faced with these two granddaughters who are being raised in the north but are very knowledgeable of their black history. I mean, the here-and-now history of being black.

And it's so prevalent that we reach back and say, it's because this person did this that this person can do that, and you can now be build on it. We can never stop building on being who we are and what we've been and what we can become, because if you ever do that, then you're cutting yourself off once again from the knowledge and the greatness of what you've come from. And I'm just excited, even for your radio station for reaching out and just expressing and asking the question, why is it so important that we do it? It's important for Americans to know the good, the bad and the ugly. And that's what makes us great people.

CONAN: And in your family, Gwen, as you approach Black History Month, do you look forward to it? Do you do anything to prepare?

GWEN: I definitely do. We do a lot of PBS, and once again, with my granddaughters being so knowledgeable of the Internet, we've even gone onto the Ancestry.com, and we're doing a - we're bringing that rope a little closer to us, or we're pulling history toward to the here and now. And it's just a wonderful connection, you know. They don't feel like there's any limits on them. And to see a black president, to see their mom graduate and get a college degree, it's just no - they have shot for the sky. Let me say this and I'll let you go. My oldest granddaughter's a straight-A student, and she stayed up when the Senate in the House were in - going up for elections. And she wanted the Democrats to win. And I said, well, sweetie, you know Condoleezza Rice is a very important person. She said, nana, I want all of Condoleezza Rice's degrees, but I want to be a Democrat.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GWEN: And for her to be able to know that there's a choice - and that's what so important. When you run out of options, do I still have a choice? Thank you for your radio. Thank you for what you do.

CONAN: Gwen, thanks very much for the call.

TURNER TRICE: Well, you know, I'm finding what Gwen is saying quite interesting because I'm learning that - I have a 14-year-old, and I'm learning, even from her, that what she's learning in school about black history or history in general - it's very different from the way I learned it. And I kind of - I think that this may dovetail a little bit with what James was saying - the previous caller - in that I do think that younger people are starting to see it in a more nuanced way.

We were talking about Abraham Lincoln last night, and she was really - I mean, she understood. She didn't see him as the great emancipator or the - or Father Abraham. But she was able to look at him in all of his complexities and to understand, you know, the reluctance there with - in some of his decisions. And things aren't just black or white. And I love that that approach that I think a lot of younger kids are getting now with history. Maybe it's still not as prevalent as it needs to be, but I do think that maybe we are moving closer to a time in which the whole notion of black history will be something of the past.

CONAN: Dawn Turner Trice of the Chicago Tribune with us from the studios of Chicago Public Radio. Is Black History Month still necessary? You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. And let's Des on the line, Des with us from Baton Rouge.

DES (Caller): Hi. I'm a 100-percent in favor of Black History Month. I think it's important for everyone, but I've always wondered, when are we going to have American Indian History Month? Let's discuss that.

CONAN: American Indian History Month or, Des, perhaps Latino History Month - the nation's largest minority.

DES: Or Latino History Month, yeah.

TURNER TRICE: Well, we have that in September. It's Hispanic Heritage Month, which begins, I believe, in mid-September and flows into October.

CONAN: In terms of Native Americans though?

TURNER TRICE: Yeah. I don't know. I'd love to know that.

CONAN: Des, any suggestions?

DESS: No. No more questions, just wanted to throw the topic out. Thank you.

CONAN: OK. Thanks very much. Which is another question that other people bring - there are so many ethnic groups that were so important to the foundations of this country - certainly African-Americans, certainly Latinos, certainly American Indians. But nevertheless, where do you stop? Once you start, where do you stop?

TURNER TRICE: Well, and we also have - March is Women's History Month, right? So, I mean, there's (Laughing) - you're right. I mean, we - you can go on and on and on. And I just - I think that there is value in all of them. And I don't - and maybe that's - maybe that's too easy. But I do think that a lot of this is optional, right. So, it's not like you have to participate at some point. Maybe in school you do. But I'm happy to learn as much as I can every time I'm exposed to any of these observances.

CONAN: And Paul wrote us by email on the same point from Oklahoma City. When is Gay History Month, Mexican History Month, Chinese History Month? Blacks have arrived. Move on to another currently downtrodden group. So, let's go now to Gloria in Bay City, Michigan who writes us - I am a white female. I think we need to keep Black History Month and Women's History Month until citizens can routinely name ten black/female inventors, thinkers, writers and leaders without hesitation. (Laughing) Well, again, some people say name ten of (Laughing) any type of…

TURNER TRICE: Yeah.

CONAN: But nevertheless, as long as you're instructing about American history in whatever context, isn't that a positive way to engage people around the country?

TURNER TRICE: It is a very positive way. And I remember there was a study a few years ago that showed that Americans were woefully behind when it came to history. And I think that there should be a push for all of it. But I do believe that there is still some validity in separating and every now and then kind of highlighting or illuminating some parts of - whether it's black history or Hispanic heritage month or Asian-American history.

CONAN: And by the way, we've been told by our reference librarian, Kee Malesky, Native American month is November.

TURNER TRICE: Ah, OK.

(Soundbite of laughter)

TURNER TRICE: That's good to know.

CONAN: Sorry I didn't know that. Joel, Joel with us from Columbus, Ohio.

JOEL (Caller): Hi, Neal. Thank you for taking my call. Listen, I had a question. I am so dearly in love with Barack Obama because of the things that he stands for. I really love the fact that he campaigned on basically not standing up and saying, I'm a black man, vote for me. I thought that was great how he kind of just erased those color lines. And I was wondering if maybe institutions like Black History Month and the others could possibly take a notion from that and say, well, maybe we can kind of wipe away some of the lines of racism by not bringing race into the subject. I guess I'm just calling in to question as to, you know, maybe because things exist like Black History Month, that that kind of perpetuates racism in our society on one side or the other?

CONAN: What do you think, Dawn?

TURNER TRICE: Well, I've heard that notion as well. But what we have to keep in mind and sometimes maybe what we don't think of is that the mainstream or white history or the larger American history - I mean, that's something that is still the norm. And it's almost like - because we don't highlight it, maybe we don't think about it. But it permeates our consciousness. This is what we're taught in school and it's - and the reason why black history came to the fore years ago is because there was this fear that - from Carter G. Woodson - that we wouldn't - that all of the accomplishments would be missed of black Americans. And so, I understand that, and I hear it a lot, that if we didn't talk about it, then maybe it would go away. But I'm not certain that we're that - that we've moved that far ahead, as a country, when it comes to race.

CONAN: Joel, thanks very much for the call.

JOEL: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. And Dawn Turner Trice, thank you, as always, for being with us today.

TURNER TRICE: Oh, it's my pleasure. Thank you.

CONAN: Dawn Turner Trice writes the Exploring Race column for the Chicago Tribune and now one of our regulars on Talk of the Nation. She'll be back with us again soon, with us today from the studios of Chicago Public Radio.

Tomorrow, Ira Flatow will be here with Science Friday. How you choose to spend your money could affect you happiness, psychologists say. Ira will look at the connection between money and happiness on Talk of the Nation, Science Friday. Lynn Neary's going to be here on Monday. I'm away for a couple of weeks. So, I'll talk to you again in March. This is Talk of the Nation from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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