For 10 years, I produced ethnic heritage month celebrations for the television station I worked at in San Francisco, starting each February with Black History Month. I remember that many white folks at the station (I’m African American) questioned the need. Some even asked why there wasn’t a “White History Month.” I would reply that every day is “White History Day.”
The precursor to Black History Month, Negro History Week, was launched in 1926 by the historian and educator Carter G. Woodson. Woodson selected the second week in February, so that the celebration straddled the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and President Abraham Lincoln.
In 1976, Negro History Week became Black History Month.
But Woodson’s goal was never for it to become an annual event. According to historian John Hope Franklin, Woodson “fervently hoped that soon the history of African Americans would become an integral part of American history and would be observed throughout the year. In succeeding years down to his death in 1950, he continued to express the hope that Negro History Week would outlive its usefulness.”
Perhaps it has—but for reasons other than those he imagined.
Among those celebrating Black History Month this year were members of the Trump White House, which issued a proclamation tied to this year’s theme: “African Americans in Times of War,” an acknowledgment of the contributions made by black men and women in uniform.
“Because of their love of country, these heroes insisted on serving and defending America despite racial prejudice, unequal treatment, diminished opportunities, and segregation,” the White House statement read.
Statements like these are hard to reconcile with other things Trump has said, like calling nations dominated by people of color “s---hole countries.” It’s almost as though Black History Month is an occasion for posturing, not sincerity.
Some people do make good use of Black History Month, like San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich. In comments to reporters in mid-February, Popovich, who is white, observed, “we live in a racist country that hasn’t figured it out yet. And it’s always important to bring attention to it, even if it angers some people.”
Many in the media do publish articles about African Americans in February, and air special programs, public service announcements, and movies. Museums and libraries hold special exhibits, lectures and events.
But too often, Black History Month has become a ready-made excuse to ignore African American history and contributions for the other 11 months of the year.
We kid ourselves if we think that by designating February as Black History Month we’re really doing anything to honor African Americans or to combat racial prejudice in this country.
As coach Popovich put it, “You have to keep it in front of everybody’s nose, so that they understand that it still hasn’t been taken care of, and we have a lot of work to do.”
Instead of a month of perfunctory gestures, we need yearlong efforts of recognizing African Americans who made—and continue to make—a contribution. This recognition needs to be an integral part of our lives all year, not just during the year’s shortest month.