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Black History Month is a good idea whose time has passed. Black history should be American history every day of the year.

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By ELIJAH GOSIER, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published January 14, 2003


The call from Pearl Feldman came near the middle of last year. In the tone of someone who learned her bearing before brashness became the norm, she told me that the Friends of the Gulfport Library was trying to line up its activities for the coming year and the group would love to have me speak in February.

Her manner and manners made it hard to say no.

But I did.

I don't do February, I told her.

I would be happy to oblige any other time of the year, but not in February.

My ideas don't change appreciably from month to month. I think the same things in the heat of July that I do in December. So why does the interest in hearing them proliferate in February? The answer is not that complex. February is Black History Month, and any organization with a semblance of interest in the larger world outside its sphere scans the horizon for black themes or black speakers to build the month's programs around.

Names that never surface for activities during the rest of the year pop to the front of their list for February.

That's a major part of the reason I declined Mrs. Feldman's invitation. I don't do Black History Month.

Instead, I talked to her group a few days ago, in January.

February does hold great significance for black Americans. Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, key figures in the abolition of slavery, were born in that month. The 15th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified in February, and 22 days later -- still in February -- Hiram Revels became the first black man elected to the Senate.

Those are some of the reasons that Carter G. Woodson chose February as the month to observe black history. Woodson, who held a doctorate from Harvard, was dismayed that in all his studies of history, black Americans were either ignored or treated virtually as baggage incidental to the United States' travels through history.

So Woodson, in 1926, initiated observance of Black History Week primarily to make sure that black people knew otherwise, that they learned that their ancestors thrived and contributed to this country's development even though weighed down by the adversities of slavery and the unwillingness of the nation to accept them as full citizens.

Black History Week, expanded to a month decades later, provided a much-needed boost to the self-esteem of black Americans, who had in large degree been acculturated into accepting not just their assignment to second-class citizenship but also second-class humanity.

It was effective in that role. Over the years, February has inspired many young black students to work hard and set goals by showing them the possibilities.

It is not 1926 anymore. Black people have no reason to believe they are inherently flawed and inferior.

After decades of building black self-esteem, Black History Month has outlived that usefulness and has now slid into the realm of counterproductivity. Observing a Black History Month needs to become a thing of the past.

Years after civil rights gains assured, at least legally, that black citizens are full Americans, years after "Black is beautiful" became more than a slogan and self-loathing became a rarity, observing a Black History Month goes counter to the progress we've made.

Observing the month now says that we've contributed to this country's history but not in such significant measure that our contributions belong in the body of study called American history; or we're saying that black contributions belong in the main body of study but have not gotten there.

Either statement is offensive; neither is acceptable.

The continued observance of Black History Month is a reversion to acquiescing to second-class stature and segregates the study of history into disjointed, conflicting accounts.

Americans, especially black Americans, should no longer accept a set-aside period for focusing on black achievements but should insist that black history be integrated into the broader studies of American history and world history.

The integrity of scholarship demands it.

How can you have an honest, factual discussion of the Civil War, for instance, and ignore the influence that Frederick Douglass, a man born into slavery, had as a writer, orator and presidential adviser on Abraham Lincoln's resolve to end slavery and later on his decision to allow black soldiers to join in the fight?

How can you study the American Revolution and not have Crispus Attucks' name and his role in the Boston Massacre come up? Attucks was the first casualty in that seminal act of defiance against the British, leading to the war for independence.

How can you study American literature and leave out Richard Wright and James Baldwin?

As difficult as it might seem, my textbooks managed to do that. They covered the War Between the States and the Revolutionary War with no trace of Douglass or Attucks.

In my textbooks, Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, was credited with being a catalyst for the war to end slavery, but not Douglass. In what was probably an offhanded attempt at humor upon meeting Stowe, Lincoln was reported to have said: "So you're the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war."

Some Americans who learned history from the same textbooks I did balk at the notion of integrating Douglass, Attucks and others who made significant contributions to the country's progress into the history books with Thomas Jefferson, Lincoln and the other acknowledged giants. They disdainfully call it "revisionist" history. Perhaps they fear the luster of some of their heroes will be dulled when they are forced to share the spotlight of history -- as Lincoln would be -- or when they are shown to have been vulnerable to human, not-so-heroic frailties, as Jefferson was.

But if Americans are to be one people, then the story of how we arrived at that point should be one story based on fact rather than mythology. We should not have to piece it together like a puzzle scattered over the living room floor.

The most beautiful, comprehensive bulletin board display in February is an unacceptable substitute for teachers taking those same materials and fitting them instead into their lesson plans.

Black History Month, no matter how well it's observed, is not vindication for our failure to unify and reconcile American history.

It is a valiant idea whose time has come and passed.

-- To reach Elijah Gosier, call (727) 893-8650 or e-mail gosier@sptimes.com.

Tell us

What do you think about Black History Month? Let us know. E-mail jbarry@sptimes.com; or fax (727) 892-2327; or write to John Barry, Deputy Floridian Editor, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731.

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