The Problem of Black History Month

Gordon Barnes 

africa-american-history-month-black-historyEvery February in the United States (as well as Canada), and throughout October in the United Kingdom, a wide-ranging debate reignites over the existence and observance of Black History Month. As it relates to the United States, Black History Month has been officially recognized by the government since 1976, after earlier “unofficial” attempts at universities between 1969 and 1970 gained traction. The recognition of the ceremonial roots of Afro-American contributions to US history began in a systematized manner in February 1926 with Negro History Week – a celebratory observance of Afro-American achievement centered around the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglas – which was promulgated by Carter G. Woodson. On its surface, the celebration of Black History Month presents no moral or political issue that any ostensibly liberal-minded person would have qualms with. There exists, however, a gross set of socio-political contradictions accompanying the extant manifestation of Black History Month.

The contemporary debates around the merits of Black History Month in the US are often framed in Black and White, that is, through a simplistic racial vernacular, one which either posits the celebration as antithetical to so-called American values for focusing on a specific racial group or one which articulates the necessity of such observance due to the historic, as well as modern-day, oppression of Afro-Americans in the country. For as the well-known axiom goes, “If February is Black History Month, White history ‘month’ is the rest of the year.” Those in US society who claim Black History Month as problematic more often than not do so in covertly (and somwashingtonduboisetimes overtly) racist terms. This is often evinced in the ridiculous opining about the United States as a colorblind society – anyone paying attention over the past two decades will notice that the US is very far from any “post-racial” bliss. And at other times, the attacks on Black History Month amount to blasphemous assaults on the histories of Afro-Americans, eliding or disavowing the many contributions of peoples of African descent in the US. These arguments, as those who propagate them, are pure rubbish and very much the result of the decrepit state of racial relations in the country.

But what about those on the other side of this dichotomy, those who extol the achievements of Afro-Americans? It seems, at least amongst popular commentators, that the champions of Black History Month tend towards hero worship and sanitized historical reconstructions of various Afro-American figures. With little nuance and an appalling lack of historicity, black figures are revered as titans for this brief period and are included in the national narrative around black history only when their legacies are deemed appropriate (or whitewashed) for liberal political agendas. While there have been moves in recent years to celebrate more radical Afro-Americans as part of Black History Month, the commemorative aspects of the month, on a national and popular level, are reserved for those figures whose history does not unsettle the current status quo.

It should come as no surprise then that in 1976 President Gerald Ford officialized Black History Month during the bicentennial of the first American Revolution. And it was likewise convenient for the elite stratum of society that the celebration of Afro-American history came only a year after the cessation of the US imperialist venture in Indochina and during the zenith of the Black Power movements. In effect, Black History Month, as an official remembrance, was born out of a problematic duality. On the one hand, people (black and otherwise) had been organizing ad hoc celebrations of black historical achievement and desired official recognition. On the other hand, this state recognition could only come about if such a celebration of Afro-American history served the interests of the ruling elite of capitalism.

feb-1926Essentially, the making of Black History Month occurred in such a way that while at one register it did uplift many Afro-Americans to the national pantheon, it did so only insofar as their legacies could serve the continuity of bourgeois politics. This dualism has been the cornerstone of other “history months” for oppressed groups as well. Women’s History Month (March), National Hispanic Heritage Month (September-October), Native American Heritage Month (November), and Asian American and Pacific Islander Month (May) became official state-observed commemorations in 1986, 1988, 1990, and 1990, respectively. The fact that only on the women’s front is there “history” is worth taking stock of. True to its form, US capitalism, particularly emanating from the liberal corridors of civil society, co-opts and appropriates such observances to its own ends when it deems necessary. Like Black History Month, the aforementioned celebratory periods do not, at a popular level, tend to eulogize those persons whose histories challenge the national imaginary or cannot be grotesquely altered so that they do.

Black History Month, therefore, is as much a tool of the ruling class as it is a space for remembrance and reverence amongst the oppressed. This is particularly true due to Barack Obama’s presidency from 2009 to 2017. Carter G. Woodson’s proposition for Negro History Week in 1926 was specifically meant to affirm that Blacks in the US did indeed have a history. Comparing Afro-Americans to indigenous peoples, Woodson articulated that part of the reason why Amerindians in the US were so ill-treated was due to the lack of a perceptible historical narrative (as seen by elites). For Woodson, if Blacks were to survive in America they were to demonstrate that they did in fact have a vibrant history. And indeed, lest they be viewed in broader society as G.W. Hegel viewed Africans in his Philosophy of History, that is, without a past, without a future, forever in a social morass and statis. Contemporarily, Afro-American history is deployed in such a way as to placate and dissuade more radical social elements from pursuing substantive social changes within society.

More often than not, Black History Month in the US is observed by running through a veritable laundry-list of Afro-American achievements. Person x was the first black person, against all odds in a deeply racist society, to accomplish this, person y was the first black person to make this, person z was the first black person to dis
cover this, and so on and so forth. While this is clearly a very simplistic rendering, it remains the skeletal structure of what constitutes Black History Month in the US today. When it comes to the question of civil rights and the struggle against oppression, Black History Month, on its surface, seems like a perfectly sound way to remember and celebrate the forebears of this continuing struggle. But the superordinate elite in this country, in conjunction with politically-allied middling layers, push forth a narrative of black resistance which is contrived and obfuscates the more militant histories and achievements of Afro-Americans.

This is the reason why Harriet Tubman, for example, is often portrayed as a meek and diminutive woman helping her fellow slaves to freedom. What the masses of people do not learn during Black History Month is that she was engaged in armed resistance against the slavocracy in the South. She had commanded a Union raid to liberate slaves during the Civil War and would have been involved in John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry had it not been for illness. Much like Tubman, the level of socio-political appropriation
that has gone into casting Martin Luther King, Jr. as the emblem of protest is apparent. Despite the very reformist nature of his politics, the liberal (as well as conservative) elite in the United States holds his legacy up as one which should be emulated if there is to be social change. By this logic, figures and groups like Malcolm X, Mabel and Robert F. Williams, the Black Panthers, the Deacons for Defense, and countless others have been effectively erased from popular consciousness. This erasure, which is commonplace in the teaching of American history, is made particularly acute during Black History Month. Had the civil rights movement been composed purely of the likes of Rosa Parks and Bayard Rustin, the piecemeal concessions won from the US government would have been even more paltry than what has been achieved.

This watered down and highly managed rendering of history during Black History Month doesn’t stop there. We are told to remember the debate between W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington but rarely are we called upon to remember what was at stake in this debate. While the former insisted on full unequivocal citizenship rights, the latter agitated for gradual integration whilst bending to White-only political rule and ensuring Afro-American passivity. Furthermore, Black History Month fails to highlight Du Bois’ socialistic politics, his eventual renunciation of his US citizenship and his self-imposed exile to Ghana. These are but a few examples of how the selective retelling of Afro-American history plays into the hands of the oppressors even as it elides all radical underpinnings of those it claims to represent. Black History Month, if not imbricated with more radical and “unconventional” historical narratives, not only serves as a tool of the ruling class but as an ideological fetter in the struggle for mass liberation.

All of this is not to say that Black History Month should be consigned to oblivion. As it stands now, at the very least it offers a space to contest dominant historical narratives. And while the cacophony of voices, the most powerful of which prop-up the more simplistic narratives of black history, serve elite renditions of history, those engaged in socio-political movements aimed at transforming the social order must exploit this space. It is only when the social basis of society is drastically altered that these divergent histories can come to the fore on a popular platform. Until that time, Black History Month, while problematic in innumerable ways, must continue to exist and be defended – and not only from the egregious racists and right-wing attacks but also from the liberals who see tokenism and black docility as the only appropriate modes of representing and remembering the Afro-American past.

%22colored%22_drinking_fountain_from_mid-20th_century_with_african-american_drinkingAny student of American history, be they neophyte or professional, cannot fail to see the immense impact that Afro-Americans have had on US society since the colonization of the North American continent. But this legacy must not and cannot be reducible to a simple tallying of achievements, nor can it be understood in a way that only strengthens a (White) liberal worldview. Black History Month must be contested against all those who seek either its erasure or its opportunistic appropriation. This is true now more than ever with the rise of right-wing populism and the emboldened nature of the so-called “alt-right,” an overwhelming majority of which is composed of white nationalists and incipient if not outright fascists. Moreover, this struggle over history also cannot simply be centered on the Afro-American experience. The histories of all oppressed peoples in the United States must be contested lest the elite appropriate and retool them to quell dissent or the more unsavory forces of racism and reactionary politics attempt to do away with them altogether.

Black history will be synonymous to American history only at a point in time when the race question is remedied, and this is not only a far way off but unachievable given existent socio-economic, political, and cultural realities. The same holds true for other marginalized histories. The death of American history as that of elite, white property owners isn’t nigh; so, however problematic the current manifestation of Black History Month, it must be defended and expanded. And not just during the month of February when the government approves it but always—and purged of the contemptible features of liberal historical interpretation. Contesting Black History Month – and history more generally – is not sufficient to bring to fruition a more fruitful and emancipatory understanding of America’s past. Though it is merely the smallest of insurrections against the behemoth of normative historical understanding and popular knowledge, it is necessary. When Black History Month starts to become moribund, it will either be because the present socio-political milieu will have been done away with or the forces of human emancipation and liberation have suffered a historic defeat vis-à-vis the organized right. It will be through continual advocacy for understanding Black history (and other marginalized histories) on radical grounds in conjunction with broader social movements aimed at toppling the status quo that the former, and not the latter, will come to pass.

2 comments to “The Problem of Black History Month”
  1. NEWS ALERT > > > 2 years ago (2015) President Obama officially changed the term “Black HISTORY Month” to “Black HERITAGE Month” after the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) informed him that African Americans now find the term “Black History Month” derogatory and RACIST.

  2. “By this logic, figures and groups like Malcolm X, Mabel and Robert F. Williams, the Black Panthers, the Deacons for Defense, and countless others have been effectively erased from popular consciousness.” There is a reason some of these people have been “erased from popular consciousness.” Name something concrete they accomplished other than providing an emotional vent for people’s anger.

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