In 2009, celebrated actor Morgan Freeman made news when he called Black History Month “ridiculous,” saying, “Black history is American history.” He was right. As it was widely noted at the time, February’s Black History Month grew out of something called Negro History Week, which was organized in 1926 by the historian Carter G. Woodson, whose own parents had been slaves, and who recognized that white historians during the Jim Crow era were either ignoring or distorting the experiences and perspectives of blacks.
When I was in graduate school working toward my M.A. in American history, my mother made an offhand comment that got me thinking. She said, “I’m surprised at the amount of black history you are studying versus the amount of women’s history,” or something to that effect. Yet American history and African American history are intertwined in ways few people realize. This is not to imply that women’s history is a sideshow. But it is not integral as African American history is integral to understanding America.
Consider just three items:
1) that American freedom was born in conjunction with slavery;
2) that the overwhelming response to slaves gaining their freedom as the Civil War ended was a re-entrenchment of white power so severe it used any means necessary, including terrorism, to maintain an antebellum status quo; and,
3) that “white flight” – when white Americans fled from the cities to the suburbs in the 1960s and 1970s in response to increasing minority populations, to the forced integration of public schools and busing, and to black rioting in the cities, especially after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in 1968 – rearranged American society once again, including to the present day in terms of voting patterns (the Republican ascendancy is no small part of this story). By now, most people know that urban decay has also largely been caused by white flight when American cities’ lost middle class tax revenue. This in turn has led to another slew of contemporary issues, foremost among them education.
In other words, for every action there has been a reaction – reaction crucial enough to actually rearrange society.
This month I have written about Jack Johnson and Camella Williams, and about “Fighting Again for the Right to Vote,” not because it is Black History Month but because black history is American history. Since Morgan Freeman made his remark three years ago, filmmaker Shukree Hassan Tilghman wrote and directed “More Than a Month,” a film that “examines what the treatment of history tells us about race and power in contemporary America.” He is on a campaign to end Black History Month, and considers the label “condescending.” (The film premiered on PBS on February 16.)
Designating a twelfth of a year for a “group” that represents one twelfth of the population may feel accurate, but we have come full circle. Today separating black history from American history ignores its primacy in American political culture, and allows us as a people to continue to relegate too much of black America to the sidelines.
President Barack Obama just broke ground on the new National Museum of African American History and Culture, due to open in 2015 as part of the Smithsonian on the national mall in Washington, D.C. Its mission summarizes the contradiction that black history is both separate and primary:
- The first [goal of the museum] is to create an opportunity for those that care about African American culture to explore and revel in this history.
- Equally important is the opportunity to help all Americans see just how central African American history is for all of us. The museum will use African American history and culture as a lens into what it means to be an American.
For further reading on the fact that American freedom was born in conjunction with slavery, see American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia by historian Edmund S. Morgan.
For further reading on the phenomenon of white flight and the rise of conservatism, see White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism by Kevin M. Kruse.