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Celebration or Placebo?

Celebration or Placebo?

The annual focus on African-American heritage generates questions about Black History Month observances.
By  Crystal L. Keels

“I hate Black History Month.” Such reads the title of a 2001 essay posted on The author immediately attempts to assure readers that this is not racist sentiment. On the contrary, the writer insists, the issue is that Black History Month is relegated to the shortest month of the year. And once that month is over, Black history generally disappears from educational agendas. The author also admits that the aims of Dr. Carter G. Woodson, the second African-American to graduate from Harvard University and the founder of Negro History Week, were more than legitimate, but at this point in history, such “segregation” of Black history should be obsolete.

Yet the plethora of lectures, exhibits, film screenings and poetry readings that suddenly appear on university and college campuses across the nation every February suggest that Black History Month might be helping to fulfill Woodson’s goal. Woodson initiated Negro History Week in 1926 as a way to highlight the almost universally ignored contributions and history of people of African descent.

But in recent years, questions have been posed about the relevance of Black History Month and related celebrations, particularly those in institutions of higher education.

“Over the years, I have grown increasingly disenchanted with Black History Month, even as I reluctantly participate in some of the festive activities,” says Dr. Audrey T. McCluskey, associate professor of African and African American diaspora studies and director of the Black Film Center/Archive at Indiana University.

“In 1915 it made a lot of sense, given the political disenfranchisement of Blacks and their invisibility in the public sphere,” she says. “It seems anachronistic that in the 21st century we should be celebrating the ‘contributions’ of Blacks to this country.”

McCluskey is not alone in her reservations about Black History Month. Dr. Nell Painter, the renowned Princeton University historian, told The Associated Press in 2005 that speaking invitations generally involve requests for the same old tired material. And a recent article, “Is Black History Month Broken?” featured on, reports that Painter is simply saying no to requests for Black History Month appearances. Others are beginning to do the same. In the same article, Dr. Mary Frances Berry, former chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, said Black History Month events do little to delve into the depths of information regarding Black achievement.

Dr. Sarah Willie, an associate professor in the department of sociology and anthropology at Swarthmore College, concurs. “We need more than shallow motivational speeches. We need to go deeper. We need more and better information,” she says.

Larger-Scale Change
Some of the events that are listed under Black History Month celebrations are only loosely associated with anything Black or historical. Some in fact, are quite bizarre, says Dr. William Jelani Cobb, an assistant professor of history at Spelman College.

“Someone was doing a Wesley Snipes film festival for Black History Month,” he says.

Black History Month celebrations at some schools have become little more than excuses for a party. For example, Central Michigan University is touting a concert by Atlanta rapper Ludacris as part of its celebration. Tennessee State University, an HBCU, featured the Miss Nubian Queen Pageant. A year ago, the Bronx Zoo got into the act, deciding to highlight its animals from Africa during February. 

But despite some of the unusual events, Cobb is an advocate of Black History Month.

“It’s an important tradition. Lots of people do interesting things. We need to celebrate the real dimensions of the history,” he says. “It’s not an either/or.”

Cobb says Black history should be part of the year-round curriculum, but that Black History Month observances should remain in place. “It is a special recognition of what has been either ignored or grossly distorted,” he says. “It is vital, important and I hope to see it continue far, far into the future.”  

Katrina Volbrecht, a student at Idaho State University, says, “I personally think it’s necessary right now. If we didn’t have it, our children wouldn’t know about Black history.” She adds, however, that Black History Month celebrations should place a greater emphasis on what she describes as larger-scale change. “We need to step back and think critically about what’s happening and not just accept the status quo.”

Volbrecht also suggests that more traditional elements of Black History Month celebrations should be combined with new elements and information. 

Dr. Bettye Gardner, a professor of history, geography and global studies at historically Black Coppin State University in Baltimore, shares similar sentiments.

“It’s important to have observances and celebrations, but not so it just becomes something you do,” she says. “In observing Dr. King’s birthday, I wish there was some way we could get beyond his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. We have a rich history, but we tend to focus on the same few people.”

Indiana’s McCluskey takes that thought a step further. She says Black History Month not only highlights just a few people, it seems to benefit just a few as well.

“For some Black celebrities, Black History Month has become an opportunity to earn big bucks on White campuses with warmed-over speeches that tell people what they already know, then pick up their checks and get the hell out of town,” she says. “Nothing has changed, and under this cozy arrangement, nothing will.”

Dick Gregory, Dr. Angela Davis, Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, Alice Walker, Dr. Cornel West, James Earl Jones, the Rev. Al Sharpton and Chuck D. are among the listed speakers available for Black History Month, according to the Web site Scholar bell hooks and Aaron McGruder, the creator of the popular comic strip “Boondocks,” have also made the speakers’ circuit during the month of February.

“Whether or not it is a symbolic gesture, I can see how that would be a concern,” says Dr. Darnell Hunt, executive director of the Ralph J. Bunche Center for the Study of African American Life at the University of California, Los Angeles. “We have a long way to go,” he adds about propagating Black history. “At the Bunche Center we do it year round, and we also take advantage of the Black History Month platform to educate people who might not realize all of the richness of Black history.

We are an increasingly diverse society and appreciating each other is imperative.”

Gena Flynn, program coordinator of the MLK Symposium at the University of Michigan, a program that begins in January with Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday and continues through Black History Month, says the university engages in academic events, community service events and outreach.

“It is received well by our faculty, staff and students. This year’s theme at UM is “A Time to Break Silence” and includes workshops on economic disparities, Hurricane Katrina, the U.S. prison epidemic, American Indian imagery in sports and issues of sexuality,” she says. “Each year is different. Last year the theme was “The Simple Art of Living Together.”
It is that spirit of living together that motivates the celebration of Black History Month at Kansas State University, says KSU President Ron Wefald.

“It is about equality, freedom, enlightened self interest and the civil rights movement,” he says. “ I feel it is a moral obligation.”
Wefald is also thrilled about the addition of head football coach Ron Prince to the KSU community. The former University of Virginia assistant coach became one of only four Black Division I-A head coaches in the nation when he agreed to lead the KSU program. He has a staff of nine assistant coaches, five of whom are Black. The dearth of Black head football coaches has been an increasingly embarrassing problem for the NCAA (see Diverse, Nov. 17, 2005).*

“This will change America and show to universities all over the country that it’s time,” Wefald says. The university’s Black History Month celebrations are a manifestation of that commitment.

“It’s a very important month here,” he says.

At George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., Samantha McClelland, assistant in the Office of Diversity Programs and Service, says Black History Month celebrations are genuine celebrations of GMU students.

“Students here are appreciated,” McClelland says. “And they are empowered by their history.” She says that Asian, Black, Hispanic and White students all participate in Black History Month and in celebrations of Hispanic Heritage and Asian History Month as well. McClelland adds that celebrations at GMU are relevant because the programs and presentations rely on student input. “We go on students’ comments, what they say they need,” she says. Ironically, that reliance on student input may explain why some Black History Month events have deteriorated into little more than celebrations of pop culture. As part of its celebration this year, GMU invited the rap group Three 6 Mafia, whose lyrics have featured Satanic references, to the university to perform.

A Substitute for Real Action?  
There appears to be a general consensus among higher education administrators, faculty members and students that Black History Month celebrations could be more effective than they are currently. Such changes, some say, involve the entire education system and the general public at large. 

“We’ve all got to step up to the plate and make it happen,” says Coppin’s Gardner. “From elementary school on up. It has to start sooner than college.” She says parents should begin to teach their children about Black history before they ever enter school. “If you provide them with a certain setting, they will buy in.”

Yet McCluskey says a radical revision of Black History Month is vital, particularly on college campuses.

“Black History Month is a cheap version of reparations that makes no demands on its benefactors — except for their rapt attention for 28 short winter days,” she says. “It has become a substitute for real action. Rosa Parks didn’t wait for Black History Month, neither did Black student Freedom Riders, or those who changed our campuses over a generation ago. Why not insist upon another Black millennium and make it a reality every day?”

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