Black History Month revisited

"We need year-round dedication to the truth about ... how the racial divide in our nation began."

The Legislative Black Caucus hosts a Black History Month kick-off press conference with guests LG Mandela Barnes & Gov. Tony Evers
The Legislative Black Caucus hosts a Black History Month kick-off press conference with guests LG Mandela Barnes & Gov. Tony Evers. (Via Evers' office)

During one of his frequent visits to Milwaukee, the late African-comedian Dick Gregory cracked a joke during a Black History Month ceremony: 

“Y’all know they just had to give us the one month with all them messed up days, don’t you?”

The joke, in front of a predominantly African-American audience, received the expected laughs and applause. But the reality behind the statement is not entirely frivolous.

That was decades ago (Gregory died in 2017) but I have long come to view the annual Black History Month celebrations and recognition ceremonies as not only disappointing but on the verge of irrelevancy for many African Americans. 

It’s a month for black artists, speakers, organizations and schools to pump up their itineraries with special appearances or events, a frenzied attempt to cram as much relevant information or recognition of black achievement into 28 days — 29 days during a Leap Year — as possible for a community that doesn’t do much to educate citizens about the subject most of the other months of the year.

Frankly, I don’t like the idea of Black History Month anymore even though I think it does provide a bare minimum of required attention to a history of an American population that has had an indelible impact on the most influential nation on the face of the planet.

Unmistakably, black history is American history, which means it can’t be segregated or held apart from the rest of the story, the goal Black History Month seems to promote. My belief is that kind of thinking goes against what the occasion is supposed to represent in the first place. 

When Carter G. Woodson, the son of former slaves, first came up with the idea for Negro History Week in 1936, which later evolved into Black History Month decades later, it was meant  to be a starting point to allow the teaching of a proud legacy to a nation’s schoolchildren and adults who didn’t realize how many aspects of black history were left outside the mainstream appreciation of arts, culture, scientific achievement and even religion. 

When Black History Month became a regular addition to the academic schedule of public schools with a majority population of African-American students, it was an avenue for many teachers and administrators to provide interesting programming and extracurricular additions to the regular classroom routine.

The observance of Black History Month in schools that don’t have a majority of black students has been sporadic and even non-existent. 

When politicians in areas with little racial diversity got involved, Black History Month became something of a joke thanks to white legislators who either were misinformed or misguided in their attempts to acknowledge what the month was meant to represent.

In recent years, Wisconsin has become a good example of this awkwardness; by “good” I mean downright embarrassing.

A proposed Black History Month resolution in the Wisconsin Legislature caused some politicians to disagree about the format and content of the recognition.

Representative Scott Allen (R-Waukesha) proposed a Black History Month resolution in December that mostly honored white Americans and only recognized four African Americans. Allen, a white member of the Assembly, argued that his resolution was meant to encourage more white Americans to take an interest in Black History Month.

Some African Americans, including state Sen. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee) criticized the proposal, telling Allen in an email that his resolution “failed” in its stated purpose, and questioned his motives given his lack of support for other legislation intended to address racial inequality. 

Last year, the Wisconsin Legislature became embroiled in controversy when some African-American politicians attempted to honor professional football player Colin Kaepernick, who became famous for kneeling during the national anthem to protest police brutality against African-Americans.

That resolution was rejected by Republicans in both chambers.

I appreciate the way black history gets the spotlight during February. But I have come to view Black History Month as more valuable as a marker for current African-American achievement than a compilation of past dates and events. 

It’s good to know the history of the civil rights movement and important African-American personalities.  But eight years of Barack Obama serving as the first black President of the United States from 2008 to 2016 did more for black history than any academic classroom setting.

In contrast, President Donald Trump’s continued demonstration of his inability to appreciate or even comprehend the history of black Americans with his confounding statements that suggest he didn’t realize Fredrick Douglass was dead or his use of the term “lynching” sets us back. 

Decades of recognizing Black History Month haven’t appreciably increased most Americans’ basic knowledge of the subject. In Wisconsin, it would be interesting to ask residents whether this state ever participated in black slavery or was active in the so-called Underground Railroad during previous centuries.

(The answer to both questions is yes.) 

More than Black History Month, we need year-round dedication to the truth about our troubled history, and how the racial divide in our nation began.

Just like Dick Gregory suggested, one month “with all those messed up days” was never enough no matter how well or poorly it gets celebrated.