If We Must Have Black History Month, Let’s at Least Do It Better

Slate's Culture Blog
Feb. 5 2014 1:39 PM

Let’s Fix Black History Month

harriet_ann_jacobs1894
If you haven't heard of Harriet Jacobs, now is the perfect time to change that.

Photo courtesy of Jean Fagan Yellin/Wikipedia

Each Black History Month brings with it new ponderings of a seemingly eternal question: Do we really need a Black History Month? The voice of God himself, Morgan Freeman, thinks the answer is no. And he’s not alone. There’s even a documentary film that actively rallies for the demise of the holiday.

Aisha Harris Aisha Harris

Aisha Harris is a Slate staff writer.

I sympathize. But I also believe that Black History Month—which began as Negro History Week in 1926—is here to stay, so long as there is beer to sell and positive corporate images to maintain. So rather than pushing for the end of it, let’s try to fix it. Here are five straightforward tips for improving the shortest, most vexed month of the year.

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Tip No. 1: Highlight the works and lives of Harriet Jacobs, Bill Pickett, Joyce Bryant, and other overlooked historical figures.
There’s a good chance these names—and many others like them—are unfamiliar to you. Perhaps that’s because whenever February comes around and schools, corporations, and media outlets use the occasion to tout the achievements and accomplishments of famous black people, it’s almost always the usual suspects—Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, etc.—who are emphasized. As Clinton Yates has said, “February might as well be labeled Ancient Black Civil Rights History.”

Meanwhile the many forgotten and underappreciated figures who have also had an impact on the world are ignored. And these are precisely the people who will probably never be discussed in a grade-school textbook, whose names you may never encounter unless you’re lucky enough (or genuinely curious enough) to do so in college or beyond. If we’re going to single out a month for black history, why not address the genuinely overlooked facets of black history?

(For the curious: Harriet Jacobs wrote the autobiographical Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Bill Pickett was a black cowboy and rodeo performer, and Joyce Bryant was a jazz singer and entertainer.)

Tip No. 2: Don’t just “celebrate” Black History Month. Confront past and present injustices.
Apologies for being a downer, but one of the reasons Black History Month exists in the first place is because black Americans have long been a marginalized group. It’s certainly worthwhile to remind today’s kids of the “exceptional contributions” made by black people (which include, apparently, sweet potato biscuits and Mancala), but those same kids—not to mention adults—should be aware of past and present injustices, especially those that are rarely discussed.

The Tuskegee experiments, in which researchers intentionally withheld appropriate treatment from unknowing black syphilis patients for 25 years after penicillin was proven effective? Let’s talk about those. And the Tulsa race riot, which wiped out what was, in 1921, one of the most affluent black communities in America. More recent history should be addressed as well—screen or read White Like Me, for instance, to get an understanding of how the “War on Poverty” was twisted into a war on minorities.

Black History Month should help us confront the past as well as celebrate it. And everyone can benefit if we reexamine where the country has gone wrong. Angela Davis has put it well: Black History Month should be a time to “reflect on the struggle for freedom.”

Tip No. 3: If you must commercialize Black History Month, at least be thoughtful about it.
A 2005 Washington Post article highlighted a few egregious examples of businesses thoughtlessly “celebrating” the holiday, including full page ads from the makers of laxatives, among other important tributes to black history.

Keep an eye out, and you’ll spot these every year. A Coke ad saw fit to parallel famous moments in black achievement with the evolution of its bottle design. Stephen Colbert brilliantly lampooned a Heineken ad that eagerly implored its consumers to “come and celebrate” the month with its alcoholic beverage. The Los Angeles Clippers couldn’t even get the month right when it announced in an ad that it would celebrate by admitting 1,000 “underprivileged kids” to their game for free—in March. (Or maybe they were slyly trying to suggest Black History Month is every month? Probably not.)

If you’re going to commercialize Black History Month, give some real thought to your approach. Don’t just tout all the things you’ve done for the black community or ask people to tweet your corporate hashtag or buy your hideous sneakers.

Tip No. 4: As an adult, make an effort to learn something new about the black community or experience.
Black History Month shouldn’t simply target black consumers or school-aged children. Even as adults, there are still things we can all stand to learn. This is probably the only time of year when you have a plethora of programming about and featuring black people on networks other than BET and TV One. So take a couple of hours to delve into PBS’ eclectic slate of specials. Attend a lecture at your local museum or college. Read a fascinating biography, academic history, or work of fiction about black people.

Tip No. 5: Practice tips 1-4 all year round.

Aisha Harris is a Slate staff writer.

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