Why is Black History Month not only important, but essential?

A white, African-American history student offers his perspective

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

As a white student specializing in African-American history, I’m often asked why we should study black history, and there are several fundamental reasons why we must celebrate a uniquely black history month.

The scholar Carter G. Woodson established negro history week in 1926. It was later changed to Black History Month, to cultivate an explicitly African-American historical consciousness. It has remained a controversial event ever since.

“I’ve never been a big fan of Black History Month,” wrote DeWayne Wickham in a USA Today article last year. “While the intent is good, I’d like to see black history become a more integral part of our national consciousness.”

Black History Month incites curiosity on a popular level. It encourages those who don’t know much about the historical agency of blacks to learn more. And it also spurs those who study black history to be more diligent in learning throughout the year.

What about other minorities? Don’t they deserve months of recognition too? Fluctuating demographics necessitate reconsideration of other minorities’ histories and their interaction with black history, and perhaps we should speak of fluid ethno-cultural affiliations instead of rigid and deterministic racial categories.

However, on this continent, blacks have long been the largest minority and the most prominent players in the major racial fissures, most notably slavery.

Black History Month encompasses more than most people think. Many believe Black History Month is simply African-American history month, but several important black history components deal with Canadians, British, Caribbean and Latin-American people. It also deals with the ancestries of people from countries like Ghana, Guinea, Senegal, Cote d’Ivoire, Nigeria and Africa " namely, the African diaspora.

We must also remember Canada has its own largely disregarded black history. What is widely known by Canadians about Mathieu Da Costa, Josiah Henson, Anderson Ruffin Abbott, the black Loyalists, Africaville, or hell, even Jarome Iginla? How do these black people fit into the standard Canadian story? We must reintegrate these elements into North America’s historical narrative.

Princeton academic Cornel West said, “To talk about race in America is to explore the wilderness inside ourselves and to come to terms with a history that we’d rather conceal.”

To some extent this also applies to Canada. Racism still haunts us. If you don’t believe me, just consider the implications of Paul Haggis’ award-winning film Crash, among other things.

Black History Month is the periodic admonition to re-examine ourselves. I’m not referring to a burden of guilt. I’m not suggesting white people take control of Black History Month and celebrate it with more zeal than our black friends, or even do anything in particular.

I’m suggesting we delve into the wilderness. Everyone still makes unwarranted distinctions and prejudices based on race, including me.

The goal is asymptotic and we may never reach it. But we can always do better. We can always endeavour to understand, empathize and educate ourselves better. We can celebrate diversity better and acknowledge our commonalties better.

We can endeavour to make race less of a divider " and that is Black History Month’s most important role. It’s an annual reminder to address racial issues within our lives rather than fall back into our slumber.

So do I think Black History Month is important? It’s not just important; it’s essential.

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