By Lester Asamoah
Black History Month, like beauty, is sometimes in the eyes of the beholder. Stacey Dash’s recent comments reignited the debate as to whether Black History Month should exist or not. And Ms. Dash is not the only prominent black celebrity to speak out against the month. As we wade through another February, we are left with another year of questioning if a month “belongs” or not.
I would argue it belongs. You, the reader, are left to have your opinion. But the idea of having a month of history dedicated to African-Americans is not a bad thing. The first counterargument that should be immediately addressed is “why isn’t there a White History Month?” My question to counter is: what would we put in a White History Month? This isn’t a coy response. I would actually welcome a White History Month. But how would famous white people be honored in ways they already aren’t? More importantly, how would we assess the history and accomplishments of black people within the existing asymmetric power dynamics in America? The question isn’t, and has never been, how to leave white people out. Rather, it’s how to bring black people in.
There are three brief reasons behind keeping and appreciating Black History Month: Representation, Celebration, and History. Assessing the debate to keep Black History Month through these three lenses paints a little more of a picture as to why the month is important.
The question of “why isn’t there a White History month?” is a good starting point to point out why a Black History month is necessary. Representation. It’s not so much that black people haven’t invented things, broken records, or started major businesses. It’s that we don’t often hear about these people. Whereas, we are well-acquainted with what white people have contributed to history. Moreover, it’s that American society—in a time frame that is much closer that people realize—actively kept black people from inventing things, breaking records, and starting business. Black History Month really is a pittance compared to the cruel underdevelopment of black neighborhoods and individuals that previously took place.
Despite the important acknowledgement of the terrible wrongs that were dealt to black people, there needs to be room for realizing the success of black people. Another common counter-argument against Black History Month is that a month is not enough. And that is true. But, as is commonly said, we don’t want to “throw the baby out with the bathwater.” The increasing limits that standardized testing places on American history and the subsequent lack of interest in black history—doubled with the recent crusade against anything that isn’t American exceptionalism—is a perfect storm for knowing shockingly little about the achievements of black people. Black History Month is a celebration, but a lot of people seem to take it as a “make white people guilty month.” I would argue it’s possible to celebrate the achievements of black men and women who have contributed to history in a purely positive way. It should go without saying that black people taking pride in something is not an attack on white people.
American History v. Black History
Another common discussion point when talking about Black History Month is that it’s American history. First and foremost, someone who is enslaved is not an American citizen. And the US Constitution counted black people as 3/5ths of a person, keep in mind. Black History, as it relates to American history, is really black people either being non-citizens or highly marginalized second-class citizens for what is the majority of the existence of America. All of that being noted, a unique discussion as to what it means/meant to be black in America is warranted. It is a limited space to contemplate what black people have experienced in America and where the future lies. These conversations can, and really should be done in conjunction with white people. And people from all creeds and races, of course. There is a strange phenomenon in the American psyche that makes people deeply suspicious when black people have their own thing. But with an open ear and an open mind, there is a lot for everyone to discuss and learn. Black History is something that goes in tandem with American history, but the discussion must be honest.
This debate, like history, may repeat itself. But at least we’ve briefly covered a few arguments that make Black History Month important. Whether it should exist or not is contentious at times, but we can certainly derive positive lessons from it while it is around.
Lester Asamoah is a Graduate Student at American University’s School of International Service.