Each Black History Month brings with it new ponderings of a seemingly eternal question: Do we really need a Black History Month? The voice of God himself, Morgan Freeman, thinks the answer is no. And he’s not alone. There’s even a documentary film that actively rallies for the demise of the holiday.
I sympathize. But I also believe that Black History Month—which began as Negro History Week in 1926—is here to stay, so long as there is beer to sell and positive corporate images to maintain. So rather than pushing for the end of it, let’s try to fix it. Here are five straightforward tips for improving the shortest, most vexed month of the year.
Tip No. 1: Highlight the works and lives of Harriet Jacobs, Bill Pickett, Joyce Bryant, and other overlooked historical figures.
There’s a good chance these names—and many others like them—are unfamiliar to you. Perhaps that’s because whenever February comes around and schools, corporations, and media outlets use the occasion to tout the achievements and accomplishments of famous Black people, it’s almost always the usual suspects—Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, etc.—who are emphasized. As Clinton Yates has said, “February might as well be labeled Ancient Black Civil Rights History.” Meanwhile the many forgotten and underappreciated figures who have also had an impact on the world are ignored. And these are precisely the people who will probably never be discussed in a grade-school textbook, whose names you may never encounter unless you’re lucky enough (or genuinely curious enough) to do so in college or beyond. If we’re going to single out a month for Black history, why not address the genuinely overlooked facets of Black history? (For the curious: Harriet Jacobs wrote the autobiographical Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Bill Pickett was a black cowboy and rodeo performer, and Joyce Bryant was a jazz singer and entertainer.)
Tip No. 2: Don’t just “celebrate” Black History Month. Confront past and present injustices.
Apologies for being a downer, but one of the reasons Black History Month exists in the first place is because black Americans have long been a marginalized group. It’s certainly worthwhile to remind today’s kids of the “exceptional contributions” made by Black people (which include, apparently, sweet potato biscuits and Mancala), but those same kids—not to mention adults—should be aware of past and present injustices, especially those that are rarely discussed. The Tuskegee experiments, in which researchers intentionally withheld appropriate treatment from unknowing Black syphilis patients for 25 years after penicillin was proven effective? Let’s talk about those. And the Tulsa race riot, which wiped out what was, in 1921, one of the most affluent Black communities in America. More recent history should be addressed as well—screen or read White Like Me, for instance, to get an understanding of how the “War on Poverty” was twisted into a war on minorities. Black History Month should help us confront the past as well as celebrate it. And everyone can benefit if we reexamine where the country has gone wrong. Angela Davis has put it well: Black History Month should be a time to “reflect on the struggle for freedom.”