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Eddie Chambers: Is Black History Month still important?
February 06, 2017
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While some have decried Black History Month as taking place during the shortest month of the year, the celebration has in fact come a long way since its creator, historian Carter G. Woodson, worked with the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History to announce the second week of February as being, in the terminology of its time, ‘Negro History Week.’

Sceptics might wonder about the value of Black History Month, given that African-Americans are in some respects in markedly different social, political and educational circumstances compared to those that existed a century ago. During that time, widely available scholarship on African-American history has increased in leaps and bounds, on a great many fronts. With Barack Obama having been a two-time president, and with important civil rights advances in place for half a century or more, is there an important place for a celebration that might well appear in some respects as anachronistic?

In a word, yes.

As a professor whose classes invariably deal with aspects of African-American and African diaspora history, any moments of doubt I might have about the validity of Black History Month are dispelled once classes begin each semester. I am still shocked and saddened at the level of ignorance among students of important events and personalities that are part of African-American history, and consequently, American history. I don’t, of course, blame my students, and this ignorance is by no means restricted to students of a particular ethnicity or cultural background.

The first time I realised there was a problem was several years ago, when I casually asked my class, what they could share about their knowledge of Paul Robeson, a prominent singer and actor who championed civil rights. No hands went up, and no one could volunteer anything whatsoever about someone who could reasonably be regarded as one of the most important Americans of the 20th century.

Widespread ignorance of black American history leads to an insufficient grasp of American history. Similarly, to properly acknowledge and embrace black American history leads immediately to a more nuanced, thorough and comprehensive understanding of American history. One cannot understand or fully grasp the history of the United States without an understanding and appreciation of the African-American history embedded within it. We make a chronic mistake if we ever think that African-American history is of primary relevance only to African-American people. African-American history is important for all Americans. It is this that simple assertion that emphasises the continued importance of Black History Month.

It’s the responsibility of all of us – as parents, as teachers, as professors, as people – to do what we can to view history in all its dimensions.

A wealth of wonderful juvenile literature about black history exists and is freely available, so parents can certainly help in making black history a normal and familiar aspect of the ways in which children of all ages and ethnicities are introduced to history. Teachers, too, at both grade schools and universities need to ensure that they are offering balanced and inclusive accounts of history, to their pupils and students. Above all, as a society we need to refrain from viewing black history as an optional add-on, to be fleetingly recognised only one month a year.

Tribune News Service

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