Why Black History Month still matters in 2017

The merits of designating a month for examining black history in America may be debated by some, but most scholars agree that a better understanding of the past is crucial to future reconciliation. 

Alan Campbell/Rocky Mount Telegram/AP
Ungela Cousar, top right, sales manager for the U.S. Cellular store on Jeffreys Road, talks to 8-year-old Iyana Harrison, left, about her artwork, with Kimora Davis, 9, second from left, Durrell Martin, 8, center, and Quatavius Jones, 8, during the kickoff for the second annual Black History Month Art Contest at the store in Rocky Mount, N.C. on Feb. 1, 2017.

Wednesday marked the start of Black History Month, the annual event dedicated to the study and celebration of centuries of African American contributions and experiences. 

Does this celebration, officially begun 41 years ago, hold more – or less – relevance today?

As the country grapples with issues of racial inequality amid unrest – which some argue is fueled by the election of Donald Trump – and the police shootings of unarmed black men, advocates say, yes: The increasing awareness of the country's racial history can reduce hostility by providing Americans with a better understanding of current movements and ideology. While some scholars debate the merits of designating the month of February to the study and celebration of black history, most agree that recognizing and discussing the past is a crucial step toward future reconciliation. 

"What's happening is deeper than a question of miscomprehension of history," says Gerald Horne, a professor of history and African American studies at the University of Houston. "However, a step on the road toward … reconciliation would be a better understanding of history." 

Beyond that, Professor Horne notes that the African American civil rights movement may serve as a model for today's opponents of the Trump administration – "for those in particular who are seeking to learn about resistance to unjust authorities, there is no better example than the history of people of African descent in North America." Some observers, for example, have wondered if the unexpectedly large turnout for the Jan. 21 women's march in Washington, D.C., and in cities across the US, could become a political movement. 

An examination of the past can also offer a better understanding of current events and contemporary ideology, says Jonathan Holloway, a historian at Yale University. He cites as an example parallels between the civil rights movement and the modern Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. 

"Black Lives Matter is a contemporary articulation of the same ethos: it is not calling for the destruction of the State, it’s calling for a recognition of basic humanity and of civil rights and civic freedoms," Professor Holloway tells the Monitor in an email. "Granted, it’s using a different voice that many of the movement leaders used in an earlier era, but BLM is saying that the American promise has not been kept. A good student of the past would understand this."  

This February marks the first Black History Month for the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., which opened in September and features relics ranging from ballast bars found aboard a Portuguese slave ship that sunk in 1794 to the Chicago Bulls jersey worn by Michael Jordan during the 1996-1997 season playoffs. Horne describes the museum, owned by the Smithsonian Institution, as a "huge step forward" – one that would not have been possible without Black History Month. 

This past summer, Lonnie Bunch, founding director of the museum, spoke of the importance of using the past to work toward a better future. 

"[I]f a nation understands its history, it is a wonderful tool to help a nation figure out how they live their lives, how to understand the conditions they face," Mr. Bunch told The Christian Science Monitor. "It is this tension between the joy of history and then using that as a weapon, as a tool, as a way to better understand who we are – to provide contextualization, and maybe on good days, a little healing and reconciliation."  

The necessity of bettering Americans' understanding of black history is virtually undisputed. But critics from varying schools of thought have questioned whether devoting a month to black history simply promotes separatism and devalues the experiences of African-Americans. 

"The question here is not so much whether blacks have disproportionately suffered historically – they have – or whether we still feel the legacy of that – we do – as it is whether the correct response to that suffering is to segregate black history into a separate branch of the curriculum or a single month," writes Charles C.W. Cooke, editor of the conservative National Review Online. "Black Americans are not visitors putting on a cultural show, nor are they legally separated. They are an integral, inextricable part of the country’s past, present, and future. The curriculum should treat them as such." 

Tyrone Williams, a professor of English and Africana studies at Xavier University in Ohio, similarly argues that "[settling] for the crumbs of a black history month" does "more harm than good." 

"For blacks, the implementation of black history month represents a retreat on the front lines of cultural warfare," he writes. "Whatever ameliorating effects black history month was supposed to have had, the fact remains that it has failed to have any lasting impact on race relations in the United States." 

Some supporters of the holiday agree that, in an ideal world, a black history month would not be necessary. 

"I’m hoping for a time that we get rid of it," Marvin Dulaney, chair of the history department at the University of Texas at Arlington, told The Dallas Morning News. "Not because I don’t think black history should be celebrated, but because I’m hoping for infusion and inclusion; that it would just be redundant to do a black history month." 

But, Dr. Dulaney and other scholars say, that time hasn't come yet. 

And in the years to come, Professor Holloway of Yale says, citizen engagement during Black History Month may prove increasingly important. President Trump's remarks during Wednesday's African American History Month Listening Session were characterized by brief, vague mentions of renowned black leaders and interspersed with attacks on CNN and boasts about African-American voter turnout, garnering widespread criticism and leaving many concerned about the president's perceived lack of knowledge and interest in black American history. 

Without the country's leader driving the national conversation about racial equality, Holloway tells the Monitor, recognition and change will need to come from the bottom up, rather than the top down. 

"It is going to have to be up to the citizens of this country to educate the leader of the country about civil rights, civil liberties, elementary education about America’s great citizens, the country’s past and its astonishing capacity for difference and inclusion," he says. "How the citizens educate the president remains to be seen. Much of it, I suspect, will have to happen in the streets until he appears willing to learn." 

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