Jonathan Zimmerman: Let's End Black History Month

Roundup: Talking About History

[Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. He is the author, most recently, of Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory (Yale University Press, 2009).]

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...

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.

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?...

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.

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Arnold Shcherban - 3/19/2010

Until American black community starts
wholeheartedly and persistently promote black science professors instead of black rappers, black medical doctors, instead of black athletes, black musicians and actors instead of black gangsters or even "good" tough guys (which has become almost synonymous), there won't be any significant changes
in social psychology and attitude to a REAL education and knowledge, which - let' face it - has to be changed dramatically for the black Americans to become equal, not just on paper, but socially, economically, and financially with the white population.
End of story, Amen!