So here’s a quick quiz, culled from recent headlines: What do O.J. Simpson, Dennis Rodman, and RuPaul have in common?
By now, you’ve surely heard the answer: They were all featured in a Black History Month parade at a Los Angeles elementary school on Feb. 26.
Simpson is a former football star and accused murderer, now doing nine years of jail time for robbery and kidnapping; Rodman, another ex-athlete, is a notorious “bad boy” and reality-show eccentric; and RuPaul is a drag-queen performer. We’re not talking Harriet Tubman or George Washington Carver here.
But we are talking about who belongs in the pantheon of black heroes, and who doesn’t. And that’s the real problem. We should seize this opportunity to retire Black History Month, which has become an empty ritual of idol-worship that retards real historical progress.
Let’s be clear: The three Los Angeles teachers who gave students portraits of Simpson, Rodman, and RuPaul—and then let the kids carry them in the school parade—were out of line. And school officials had every right to suspend them, pending an investigation.
But why have a parade in the first place? When history becomes a parade of great men—or even, one would hope, great women—it loses its texture and complexity. It becomes a way to avoid tough questions, not to answer them. And it patronizes black Americans, all in the guise of uplifting them.
Black History Month began as Negro History Week, in 1926, when the vast majority of African-American students attended segregated schools. It was the brainchild of the Howard University historian Carter G. Woodson, who saw black history as a way to bolster the pride of a wounded people.
“I am trying to sell the Negro to the Negro,” explained one Woodson aide in 1932. “Negroes must learn to believe in themselves.”
By the 1940s, thousands of black schools—and even a few white ones—would adopt Negro History Week, which was held during the second week of February to commemorate the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. But Woodson also warned that a single week of the school year would never suffice.
“A subject which receives attention one week out of 36 will not mean much to anyone,” Woodson wrote. One day, he hoped, Negro History Week would be supplanted by Negro History Year. Then everyone, white as well as black, would learn about African-Americans throughout the school calendar.
Sadly, that’s not what happened. Negro History Week evolved into Black History Week, and eventually into Black History Month, when students across the nation dutifully recounted the exploits of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and other notable African-Americans.
But reducing history to a cavalcade of heroes put each one above reproach, giving Black History Month a quasi-religious character. It also spawned ridiculous debates about which deities should be admitted to the temple. The Los Angeles school parade saluted Michael Jackson alongside King, Tubman, and Nelson Mandela. Was Jackson—an accused child molester—a “great” African-American? Who cares?
Worst of all, Black History Month let the rest of the school year off the hook. By isolating black history in a single month, Americans could effectively ignore it at most other times. And they could evade the most urgent question of all: What does black history tell us about the making and the meaning of America?
You simply cannot understand American history without African-American history; indeed, they are one and the same. “It is our common history,” the black writer James Baldwin told a congressional panel in 1968. “My history, though, contains the truth about America. It is going to be hard to teach it.”
By presenting black history as a separate story, Baldwin continued, we have made it much too easy. “I am the flesh of your flesh and bone of your bone; I have been here as long as you have been here—longer—I paid for it as much as you have,” he said. “My history and culture has got to be taught. It is yours.”
When the current storm over Los Angeles subsides, then, let’s resolve to get rid of Black History Month once and for all. Nobody needs another litany of great African-Americans, recited each February like an empty holiday prayer. Instead, we need to think about blacks every month, as key figures in the larger narrative of the United States. So let’s make 2010 the first Black History Year. For everybody.
A version of this article appeared in the March 31, 2010 edition of Education Week as The End of Black History Month