Should Black History Month itself fade into history?
Many have long argued that African-American history should be incorporated into year-round education. Now, claims that Black History Month is outdated are gaining a new potency, as schools diversify their curricula and President Barack Obama's election opens a new chapter in the nation's racial journey.
"If Obama's election means anything, it means that African-American history IS American history and should be remembered and recognized every day of the year," says Stephen Donovan, a 41-year-old lawyer.
Ending "paternalistic" observances like Black History Month, Donovan believes, would lead to "not only a reduction in racism, but whites more ready and willing and able to celebrate our difference, enjoy our traditions, without feeling the stain of guilt that stifles frank dialogue and acceptance across cultures."
Yemesi Oyeniyi, a 40-year-old stay-at-home mother, says that Black History Month feels like it's only for blacks, "and therefore fails to educate the masses of non-blacks."
"I mean, now there is a Hispanic History Month and quite honestly I haven't paid more attention to the history of Spanish-speaking Americans any more now than I have in the past," she says. "I think it all should be taught collectively — every month."
The black historian Carter G. Woodson founded Negro History Week in 1926, seeking to build self-worth in an oppressed people, preserve a marginalized subject, and prove to a nation steeped in racism that children of Africa played a crucial role in modern civilization.
Woodson chose February because it contained the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass (which belies long-standing jokes about Black History Month being relegated to the shortest month of the year). Woodson's organization, now called the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH), expanded the observance to a full month in 1976.
Building on gains
It has now become a fixture in American education and culture — complete with the requisite commercialism — even as the shift in labels from Negro to black to African-American indicates the evolution of attitudes meant to be shaped by the event.
Obama released an official proclamation on Feb. 2 lauding "National African American History Month" and calling upon "public officials, educators, librarians, and all the people of the United States to observe this month with appropriate ceremonies, activities, and programs that raise awareness and appreciation of African American history."
Daryl Scott, chairman of the history department at Howard University and vice president of programming for ASALH, says Black History Month is still needed to solidify and build upon America's racial gains.
"To know about the people who make up society is to make a better society," he says. "A multiracial, multiethnic society has to work at its relationships, just like you have to work at your marriage."
"I don't see it going away," said Spencer Crew, a history professor at George Mason University, adding that a diverse year-round history curriculum can still be augmented in depth during Black History Month.
"There's a Women's History Month," Crew said. "No one would argue that we don't need to be reminded of women who have done things that are important."
Racial attitudes can also vary greatly from person to person and place to place.
Lee Eric Smith, the first black editor of the University of Mississippi student newspaper, isn't ready to get rid of Black History Month, "because, to start quoting cliches, those who don't know their history are doomed to repeat it."
"If Mississippi ranks last in more categories than I want to talk about, at the same time, so many issues we're facing are rooted in not understanding how these problems came to be in the first place," says Smith, a native Mississippian.
Mississippi memories point to a different America where, in response to institutionalized racism, concepts like Black Power and the Afrocentric holiday of Kwanzaa were created. As that racist reality faded, so did many of those creations.
The Obama factor
Obama's triumph, to some, means that we can all put other assumptions — like the need for Black History Month — behind us.
"I propose that, for the first time in American history, this country has reached a point where we are can stop celebrating separately, stop learning separately, stop being American separately," Detroit Free Press columnist Rochelle Riley wrote in a Feb. 1 column calling for an end to Black History Month.
At Daniel Warren Elementary in Mamaroneck, N.Y., kindergarten teacher Jane Schumer has dedicated many hours this year to the story of Wangari Maathai, a Kenyan activist who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for leading a movement that planted millions of trees in Africa.
Schumer connected Maathai's story to Obama, who planted a tree in her program and whose father was from Kenya. She connected Maathai to Martin Luther King Jr., who like Maathai was jailed for fighting injustice.
Schumer doesn't have any special black history plans for February.
"It can't be contrived," says Schumer. "It's a way of thinking, a way of life ... to me, the whole year has built up to this month ... the emphasis we have is what people would want to accomplish with Black History Month."
A common history
Steve O'Rourke, who has a kindergartner at Warren Elementary, says his son wants to ask Maathai, "You and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. both went to jail for doing the right thing. What did it feel like to be in jail?"
"Whenever we denote something as belonging in a certain month, it becomes tempting to say it belongs in that month alone," says O'Rourke. "Ideally I would like us to have a common rather than compartmentalized history."
New York is among several states that have passed laws mandating or encouraging teachers to broaden their history classes. New Jersey was the first to do so, in 2002, after Assemblyman Bill Payne conceived and wrote the Amistad Commission bill, named after the Africans who took over their slave ship, ended up in Connecticut and won freedom in court.
Several years later, many New Jersey teachers were unaware that the law existed, and many who wanted to comply did not have the resources or knowledge to diversify their lessons, Payne says.
Next fall, New Jersey's Amistad Commission will deploy a new set of Internet-based lesson plans for teachers to use statewide.
"I'm concerned about black and white kids' education," says Payne, who is no longer in the legislature and travels the country lecturing about his Amistad Commission. "This is not a black history course. I'm taking about U.S. history. I'm an American."
Yet even Payne thinks that Black History Month should remain, because "we should not give up our heritage."
And it does seem unlikely that it will disappear anytime soon.
"Yes, we do need it for the time being, if only because we're in uncharted territory," says Smith, the Mississippi native.
"We've just experienced a seismic shift in the identity of America," he says, referring to Obama's election. "We're in the process of transforming into something, we don't know exactly what that is yet. Until we have a better grasp on that, it's hard to understand how we should teach history."