Noble origins of 'black history' outdated

Eighty-seven years ago — when about half of households owned an automobile, women's suffrage was new and black Americans were still terrorized by lynching, especially in the South — black historian Carter G. Woodson had a simple but powerful idea: Designate a week to celebrate the contributions that black Americans had made to their country. Woodson chose the second week of February to commemorate the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.

Negro History Week, as it was known, was an important development for its time. Back then, official history barely acknowledged the presence of black Americans, while popular culture actively diminished their humanity. In such a hostile landscape, black Americans desperately needed an acknowledgement of their patriotism, enterprise and ingenuity to foster self-confidence. Knowledge is power.

Decades later, the landscape has changed in such profound ways that Woodson would hardly recognize it. Automobiles are ubiquitous; women voters usually outnumber men in national elections; and a coalition that included unmarried women and black, Latino and Asian-American voters powered the nation's first black president to re-election last year.

Despite those tectonic, ground-shaking developments, Woodson's commemoration — now Black History Month — lingers. Yet it is an artifact that, ironically, works to minimize the myriad ways in which black Americans' accomplishments are part of the national mosaic. In the age of Obama, do we need such a separate and unequal celebration?

Consider: Twenty years from now, will classroom discussions of President Obama be restricted to February? Or does the first black president belong to the broader pantheon of presidents, his legacy discussed alongside those of others? Will a future Barack Obama Presidential Library be a site of commemorations only during the shortest month of the year?

If it is absurd to imagine confining Obama to Black History Month, then it ought to be apparent that it is equally nonsensical to promote the study of Crispus Attucks, Elijah McCoy, Sojourner Truth, Charles Drew, Dorie Miller and the Tuskegee Airmen for only 28 days. The inventions, the patriotism, the industry and the adventurousness of black Americans — soldiers, cowboys, pioneers, engineers — are part and parcel of American history, not some footnote.

Proponents of Black History Month argue that, while that's true, mainstream (read "white") America still has not accepted that argument, and the contributions of black Americans are not readily acknowledged. Neither the classroom nor popular culture, they note, has moved much beyond Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington and Martin Luther King Jr.

Yet continuing to marginalize black Americans with the February set-aside hardly advances the cause. It makes the contributions of a few well-known black men and women seem a historical exception. In thoughtful criticism of Quentin Tarantino's slave revenge epic "Django Unchained," historian William Jelani Cobb argues that the movie's biggest flaw lies in the message that its title character is the rare enslaved black man who rose up against his oppressors. In fact, white plantation owners lived in fear of slave rebellions, large and small. (Ever heard of Nat Turner?)

Similarly, Black History Month places our history outside its context, separating it from the larger American story. The truth is that blacks participated in every major development in U.S. history. From the bloody Boston Massacre, to the settling of the West, to the World Wars and the labor movement, to the exploration of space, black Americans have been present as foot soldiers and leaders. In other words, black history is American history.

We Americans, regardless of color, are not particularly well-versed in our nation's story; if "black history" isn't well-understood, neither is "white history." There have long been roiling battles between the realists and the mythmakers who would whitewash the carnage that followed Columbus' "discovery," tidy up the Founders and ignore the systemic oppression visited upon blacks for generations.

As for popular culture, it may be an even harder re-write since moviegoers want romance, not the hard truth. That's why I give Tarantino some credit for "Django Unchained," a-historical though it may be. It gets the cruelty of slavery right. And it wasn't released during Black History Month.

Email Cynthia Tucker at cynthia@cynthiatucker.com.


Sister_Ruby 1 year, 2 months ago

Not all slavery was "cruel"............certainly not as cruel as it would have been staying back in Africa. Read much news about African political happenings in the last 100 years? It would be educational and perhaps, maybe with a miracle of God thrown in, give the thoughtful, open minded reader a change of attitude.

Then there's that dope Sheila Jackson Lee who said this week that she stood before Congress "as a freed slave". REALLY??????


FryarTuk 1 year, 2 months ago

".............certainly not as cruel as it would have been staying back in Africa. Read much news about African political happenings in the last 100 years?" Sis, two wrongs do not make a right. Arguing that slavery had any positive side is weak, very weak. It would be like saying the Japanese POW camps saved the Southern backwoods soldiers from poverty.


Sister_Ruby 1 year, 1 month ago

All I am saying is wake up this morning and realize that you're in the greatest country in the history of the world, with more freedom than any other country in the world, and quit looking backwards, and quit thinking somebody owes you something because of what happened to your great, great, great granpappy, and get off the dole and on the payroll. If your ancestor did not come to America, no matter how they got here, then you would probably not exist.


FryarTuk 1 year, 1 month ago

There's a breach in your logic. I agree about the motivation for self development but it doesn't have anything to do with the glory of being enslaved as way to escape a conjectured African experience. Given the option of staying in your homeland and being with your families or going to enslavement and being chattel, one might conclude a person would choose the former if given a choice. In spite of hindsight.


Ihope4albany 1 year, 2 months ago

I don't get, we can have enslavement for centuries and the terrible aftermath. Yet, to work through the reconciliation and healing, it only takes less than 100 years.

Until all the poor, disenfranchised descendents of this carnage are gainfully employed, politically involved, and spiritually anchored, Black History Month is needed.

Let me know when that happens. I want to be there!


FryarTuk 1 year, 1 month ago

I agree with Miss Tucker. Black history month is like black colleges, it separates, denigrates and subordinates. If your American be one of us and join the whole experience.


revolutionnow 1 year, 1 month ago

This is the stupidest column Tucker has ever written. She sounds like that Nat X character that Chris Rock portrayed on SNL. " Why February? Cause the MAN would only let us have the shortest month of the year!" Does she really think that somewhere people are saying, " wait a minute, it's March 1st. You can't keep talking about black history". It is people like her that keep this country divided. We can remember where we came from, but we have to walk together to move forward. Can two walk together unless they are agreed? Amos 3:3


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