In 1925, a history professor named Carter G. Woodson first proposed what we now call Black History Month. It would profit America, Woodson wrote, to overturn a pedagogical tradition in which black Americans were customarily “overlooked, ignored, and even suppressed by the writers of history textbooks and the teachers who use them.” The son of a former slave, Woodson looked around at his partially reconstructed country and did not like what he saw. An entire class of people had simply been written out of America’s story on account of the color of their skin. If America wanted to see its house undivided, something had to be done.
The first of those somethings, then named “Negro History Week” and hosted in the second week of February to coincide with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, was held in 1926, during a period when government-sanctioned segregation was the norm in many states; when “separate but equal” was not just an abstract legal theory but was practically attempted — with more focus on the “separate” bit than the “equal”; when the military was segregated; when the practice of lynching had not yet died out in the South; and when many states flatly prohibited mixed-race marriages. The stain of Plessy v. Ferguson still sat glaringly on the American escutcheon, mocking the famous words of the Declaration.
Things, mercifully, have changed. Education should follow suit. Rather than being treated as a separate and limited discipline, divorced by the pigmentation of its subjects from “mainstream” American history, the teaching of black history should hew to the principle of integration. Black Americans are not visitors putting on a cultural show, nor are they legally separated. They are an integral, inextricable part of the country’s past, present, and future. The curriculum should treat them as such.
Instead, the practice of academic separation has been expanded. In 1976, Congress changed “Negro History Week” to “Black History Month,” with President Gerald Ford leading the effort to recognize it federally and taking it upon himself to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.” A few years back, in 2005, Morgan Freeman perfectly set out the obvious case against this trend, telling 60 Minutes’s Mike Wallace that Black History Month was “ridiculous.” “Why?” asked a surprised Wallace. “You’re going to relegate my history to a month?” asked Freeman, visibly annoyed. “Which month is Jewish History Month?” Wallace conceded that there wasn’t one. “Do you want one?” Freeman pressed. “No, no.” Well, Freeman concluded, “I don’t want a Black History Month” either. “Black history is American history.”
As to why, as people sometimes ask, there is no “White History Month,” the answer is obvious: White Americans were not systematically denied citizenship. They were not (generally) owned as property. There were no “white codes” contrived to push them outside the Constitution’s protection. They were the majority, and they held all the power. History lessons, as Professor Woodson observed, rarely underrepresented whites. Whatever indignities European immigrants suffered on the free side of Ellis Island, they did not make a white Woodson necessary.
The question here is not so much whether blacks have disproportionately suffered historically — they have — or whether we still feel the legacy of that — we do — as it is whether the correct response to that suffering is to segregate black history into a separate branch of the curriculum or a single month on the school-year calendar. On most indicators — income, employment, education, incarceration, homeownership, etc. — black Americans still do worse than white Americans. But the notion that Black History Month must remain in force because there are still racial problems in America is a non sequitur. If there is still too little “black history” taught in America’s schools — or if “black history” is being taught incorrectly — then we should change the curriculum. If black Americans remain unfairly in the shadows, then the solution is to bring them out, not to sort and concentrate them by color.
Sure, Black History Month’s defenders say, but what’s the problem? After all, there’s also this month and that month. Currently, we have Women’s History Month, South Asian Heritage Month, Haitian Heritage Month, Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month, Jewish American Heritage Month, Caribbean-American Heritage Month, National Hispanic Heritage Month, National American Indian Heritage Month, and Alaska Native Heritage Month. There’s even a Confederate History Month. But a profusion of multi-culti months doesn’t improve things any more than a profusion of wrongs make a right. In a country that is supposed to be a melting pot, are we truly supposed to take comfort in having our complex history cut up into little slices and distributed with varying emphasis to students throughout the year?
I grew up in a mixed-race household. My cousin, who is half-Malawian, lived with us a lot of the time. Some of the time my aunt did, too. My aunt had black skin; I have white skin; my cousin’s is somewhere in between. And, really, it is the least interesting thing about us — an utterly, totally, thoroughly boring detail that made no difference to anything.
That is, until my cousin went to school. Come the first of October (Britain’s Black History Month is later in the year), my cousin wasn’t my cousin any more. She was my black cousin. At eight years old, she was cast by her teachers as an expert on Malawi — which she left before she could walk — and, it seemed, as a general spokeswoman for all black British people in the Cambridge area. And for a few classes per year, the Kumbaya ecumenism of the British state school system was set to one side while the eyes of her fellow pupils were trained upon her skin. In the course of the month’s lessons, my cousin, who was born in 1990, was held up as an emblem of the suffering of people she never knew and will never fully understand. It was absurd.
Equally absurd is the repetitious focus on a few — unquestionably admirable — characters, such as Martin Luther King, Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, and Frederick Douglass. Even if we agree to the conceit that focusing on leaders is the best way to teach history, would they honestly fail to make the cut if Black History Month were absorbed into the schedule? To answer “yes” is to suggest that a school curriculum, if integrated, would ignore these leaders and the pivotal moments when they rose to prominence: the Civil War and the civil rights movement. This strikes me as unlikely. And herein lies the point: Things have changed. Carter Woodson “never viewed black history as a one-week affair,” the Association for the Study of African American Life and History told the Philly Post’s Michael Coard. “He pressed for schools to use Negro History Week to demonstrate what students learned all year. It was in this sense that blacks would learn of their past on a daily basis that he looked forward to the time when an annual celebration would no longer be necessary.” Eighty-seven years later, we have reached that point. Black history is no longer “overlooked, ignored, and even suppressed.” It shouldn’t be separated, either.
— Charles C. W. Cooke is an editorial associate at National Review.