During my first year of teaching social studies at a public high school, a fellow teacher passed along to me a Newsweek article entitled “Why I Dread Black History Month.”  (NB: This article was originally written in 1994 by Wayne M. Joseph; interestingly, the version now available online from Newsweek lists “Newsweek Staff” in the by-line and has an updated date of 2010, though it varies none from the original printed version.)  Joseph referred to Black History Month as “a thriving monument to tokenism,” going on to argue that emphasizing its celebration during one month only serves to trivialize it and marginalize it from mainstream U.S. history.

By my third year of teaching, I got to teach United States History.  My training as a history major at Duke led me to believe that African American history should be woven into the fabric of U.S. history, not merely cast as standalone factoids that can be recited during the shortest month of the year.  For instance, I don’t think that Abraham Lincoln’s leadership during the Civil War can be understood adequately without reflecting on the influence of efforts such as the Underground Railroad or individuals such as Frederick Douglass and Elizabeth Keckley.  Similarly, investigating the circumstances that forged the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson has to include references to the work of people such as John Hope Franklin, Ella Baker, John Lewis, Fred Shuttlesworth, and Fannie Lou Hamer as well as to organizations such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Despite my genuine efforts to present African American history throughout the course, not just as a month-long sidelight, I always felt pressure — a little internal and some external — to make a “show” of Black History Month.  Don’t get me wrong; I do appreciate why this celebration was established by Carter G. Woodson in 1926.  What began as Negro History Week (it only gained a month in the 1970s) emerged in an era of a resuscitated Ku Klux Klan, rampant lynchings, a Jim Crow South, and the virtually wholesale disfranchisement of black voters.  I guess I just hoped that by the end of the twentieth century, we would have come far enough that things would no longer have to be viewed through a lens of race.  (But perhaps the shenanigans of Jesse Helms’ campaign in his 1990 re-election bid against Harvey Gantt should have disabused me of this notion.)  Cynthia Tucker best articulated my perspective in her 1998 editorial:

“Black History Month has served only to marginalize the accomplishments of African-Americans. . . .  It had not broadened an understanding of the ways in which black Americans have influenced American culture.  That will come only when black history is presented as it should be — day after day, week after week, month after month. . . .”

Tucker published an update to her thoughts last year, and she (as many others) questioned whether Barack Obama’s two-term presidency could serve to alter the landscape of what is considered mainstream history and culture and what is still relegated to a peripheral status.  Tucker concluded, “Black History Month places black history outside its context, separating it from the larger American story.”  Due to my early training as an historian and my recent training in the archival foundations of provenance and original order, I am struck by both the simplicity and the depth of this statement.

Archives can help us to understand the context in which things developed, whether they be Black History Month or the writings of Zora Neale Hurston.  (For reference, the papers of Carter G. Woodson are housed at Emory’s Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library (MARBL); Hurston’s papers can be found at the University of Florida.  And kudos to the MARBL that their Romare Bearden exhibit lasted longer than the month of February!)  We just have to make sure that people are aware of these archival collections and their relevance to such questions.  While my perspective on Black History Month is clear, at the same time, as long as it is being celebrated, February seems an appropriate time for repositories to take advantage of the opportunity to highlight resources relevant to black history and culture.  For instance, the Stanford University Libraries had an event to celebrate Black History Month, and the Tennessee State Library and Archives re-released three important black history collections.  February should by no means be the only time that these collections are considered, but if people are especially looking for information during these 28 days, it behooves our repositories to give people what they want.

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