Politics & Policy

Black History Month: Why?

And the Ivy League's misplaced emphasis.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is one of those rare occasions when I feel the need to recycle an old column. My reasons are twofold, but I will give you three since NR is a traditionally Catholic magazine which encourages Trinitarianism in all things. First, I’ve got to go do something which would prevent me from writing a column today even remotely as good. Second, this column is about Black History Month which begins today. Third, this column elicited a very large, often angry, response when I first wrote it, and since a large number of my readers weren’t around back then, I thought it would be okay to rerun it. I don’t think it’s dated, though the reference to “Selma” was of course a nod to Jesse Jackson’s tendency during the Florida recount to mention Selma at every opportunity.

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We are halfway through Black History Month. And who among us can say he is immune to the excitement?

The truth is, a lot of people feel that every month is Black History Month. And I don’t just mean people like Jesse Jackson who see “Selma” in everything from bad service in restaurants to Global Warming. Anyone who’s looked through a college syllabus or high-school textbook in the last decade cannot honestly say that black history doesn’t get a whole lot of attention.

For example, on a lark I decided to search the course offerings at Brown University. I searched for courses offered in the 1999-2000 academic year in which the words “black” or “African” appeared in the course description. Below is what I found (I deleted repeated courses offered in both spring and fall semesters, as well as courses in the hard sciences):

1. An Introduction to Afro-American Studies

2. West African History

3. The Afro-Luso-Brazilian Triangle

4. Colonial Cultures in Comparative Perspectives: Africa, the Caribbean, the United States

5. Freedom in African Political Thought

6. Conflict and Ethnicity in Contemporary Africa

7. African Women’s History

8. The Search for Black Identity in America

9. Africa in Anthropological Perspective

10. Imperial Unconscious

11. Cultural Encounters

12. Postcolonial Studies

13. Early French Language and Literature

14. Southern African History

15. North American Environmental History

16. Brazil and Africa in the Making of the Southern Atlantic World

17. Ethnic Conflict in Contemporary Africa

18. Refugees, Conflict and Socio-Political Change in Africa

19. Memoirs and Memory

20. African Cinema

21. Texts of Cruelty and Complicity

22. Nationalism, Modernity and Anti-Colonial Intellectuals

23. World Music Cultures (Africa, America, Europe, Asia, Oceania)

24. Brazil and Africa in the Making of the Southern Atlantic World

25. Introduction to Comparative Politics

26. Race, Class, and Ethnicity in the Modern World

27. Comparative Development

28. African Development and Demography

29. Black Lavender: A Study of Black Gay and Lesbian Plays, and Dramatic Constructions in the American Theatre

30. Comparative American Slavery

31. Black Leadership in Ethnic Communities

32. The Life and Work of W. E. B. Du Bois

33. Class, Culture, and Politics, 1865 to the Present

34. African-American Women Novelists

35. Writing and English Society, 1789-1832

36. Nationalism and Development in U.S. Literature: 1850-1950: Junior Honors Seminar

37. Black Cultural Studies

38. Romanticism and Empire

39. Red, White, and Black in the Americas

40. New “Independent” American Film

41. Rastafarianism: Philosophy, Theology, Politics

42. Black Theology

I don’t want to insult anyone brimming with black pride, but let me say that I feel the above list certainly reflects an interest on Brown’s part in covering the black experience with some thoroughness.

Then I searched for the words “American Revolution,” and I found two course — one on military history and the other actually called “Era of the American Revolution.” That’s actually not bad, considering the last time I looked, Yale wasn’t offering even a single course on the American Revolution.

I continued my search. There were about a dozen hits for courses that had the phrase “Civil War” in their description, but about half of them were about the Russian, British, or Spanish Civil Wars. If you count non-literature courses mentioning the U.S. Civil War, there were three hits. Again, not bad for an Ivy.

Moving on, I searched for “Constitution” and got four results — two for Organic Chemistry, one for the aforementioned “Era of the American Revolution,” and, of course, “Race, Ethnicity, and the Law in the United States, 1780-1900.” That’s it. I am referring to the U.S. Constitution here — just in case you think I must be referring to something else. I know, I’m thinking the same thing: no wonder so few Ivy League liberals seem to know what the Constitution says.

In the hope that you aren’t exhausted with all this yet, let me quickly give you some other results. The number of courses with the word “Lincoln” in the description was zero. The Federalist Papers, zero. Winston Churchill? Zero.

What about George Washington, the father of our country, I wondered.

Aha! Two courses with “Washington” in the course description!

Oh wait, that’s Booker T.

Never mind.

Now, I don’t want to denigrate courses like “Black Lavender: A Study of Black Gay and Lesbian Plays, and Dramatic Constructions in the American Theatre.” You can draw your own conclusions. Here’s the course description:

An interdisciplinary approach to the study of plays that address the identities and issues of black gay men and lesbians and offers various perspectives from within and without the black gay and lesbian artistic communities. Focuses on analysis of unpublished titles. Also includes published works by Baraka, Bullins, Corbitt, Gibson, Holmes, West, and Pomo Afro Homos. Some evening screenings of videotapes. Enrollment limited to 20.

Courses focusing on unpublished titles and the work of the black gay theater troupe Pomo Afro Homos are clearly worth every penny of Brown’s $26,000 annual tuition. And if you agree, I’m please to announce that reading this column now costs five thousand dollars. Please send checks care of National Review.

Of course, this sort of analysis is unscientific and maybe even unfair to the other side’s argument. A critical race theorist (sorry, I don’t know if I’m supposed to capitalize that; I think capitalized letters are tools of the pale penis people) would say that there are dozens of “mainstream” introductory or advanced courses that take subjects like the Constitution and the Civil War as givens or simply don’t mention them in their course descriptions. I’m sure that is true. But we can be equally sure that many of those same courses also fail to mention blacks in their course descriptions but certainly talk about race a lot in the classroom.

And yeah, yeah, Brown may not be representative (I’m picking on Brown because it annoys me). To be honest I planned a completely different column, but I started late and got caught up spelunking around Brown’s web site. But I’ll tell ya, I’ve played this game with other universities and this is pretty typical. I invite you to go exploring at other schools yourself. It don’t cost nothing. Let me know what ya find.

Anyway, it’s not quite clear why we need Black History Month. Is it because (white) America needs to have its consciousness raised about black contributions to science, arts, etc.? Or is it that black Americans need to have their cultural self-esteem raised about their own contributions? To be honest, it’s very hard to tell sometimes.

Either way, the thing that bothers me so much about Black History Month is how much it feels like propaganda. Don’t get me wrong, blacks have made great contributions to American life. But in a sense, so what? Why do we need to hear about it? I would be hard pressed to list for you the no doubt numerous contributions of Finnish or Nicaraguan Americans, but it’s not as if I would consider the Finns or Nicaraguans any less fully American if I found out they contributed literally nothing worth celebrating.

In this country, we do not keep score on ethnic groups. Although I guess it is interesting to point out that American Communists in the 1930s were disproportionately Finnish. Alas, they were also disproportionately Jewish, so what can you do?

Anyway, back to my point. It makes me very uncomfortable to see corporations and television networks celebrating ethnic groups. Maybe I’m the equivalent of an ethnic ACLU-er. Nativity scenes and menorahs don’t bother me at all, but it bugs the hell out of me to have the federal government touting the resumes of one ethnic group or another. This sort of Volk propaganda is quite literally un-American, in the best sense of the word “American.” Moreover, it’s unnecessary and counterproductive. As my excursion into the case of Brown v. Traditional Education reveals, blacks get plenty of attention. And if I were the average white kid, I might conclude that blacks need Black History Month, a conclusion that feeds the racism it is supposed to combat. And, if I were a black kid, I might be insulted that blacks need their own quota of days set aside, in which many fine accomplishments are celebrated and many mediocre accomplishments are over-hyped to the point of embarrassment.

Now, I know there are a lot of liberals who disagree. But many of them subscribe also to the condescendingly racist notion that they are the stewards of black self-esteem. As for me, I think your self-esteem is your own business, and no amount of public-service ads will change that.

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