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Eye on the News

John H. McWhorter
Do We Really Need Black History Month?
In 2011 America, there’s no need for anything like it.
17 February 2011

To feel that something is tired in the idea of Black History Month isn’t, despite what one might hear from some quarters, racist. When Carter G. Woodson founded Negro History Week in 1926, he hoped that the need for such a celebration would gradually recede. For the week to morph into a month did not exactly bear out his wishes, and today, even black people brandish an array of objections to Black History Month. Actor Morgan Freeman wonders why the history of his people must be relegated to a single month. Others more recreationally inclined consider it suspicious that February is the shortest month. Is it perhaps time to let Black History Month go?

The question is not whether black history is important. It is whether America still needs to be reminded of that fact. What would an America sufficiently aware of black history look like? Suppose, say, the organizers of a centennial commemoration of the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo decided to highlight the racially discriminatory side of the original event. Or suppose a traveling museum exhibit of slave ship artifacts reportedly got record-breaking attendance at every site that it visited. Both have happened, both suggest an America that “gets” black history—and both occurred ten years ago, at this writing.

Just a year later, Washington State Representative Hans Dunshee, who is white, agitated to have Jefferson Davis’s name removed from a Seattle highway and replaced with the name of William P. Stewart, a black Civil War veteran from Washington. Meanwhile, white Underground Railroad buffs in Ohio were the most vocal critics of various historical distortions in a planned Cincinnati National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. In modern America, things like this are ordinary: I chose among countless possibilities. If this isn’t an America ready to heed Carter G. Woodson’s advice, then what would be?

How about fast-forwarding to last year? Isabel Wilkerson’s chronicle of the Great Migration, The Warmth of Other Suns, was one of the most ecstatically received books of the year and will likely win a Pulitzer. Another of the most popular books of 2010 was Rebecca Skloot’s chronicle of Henrietta Lacks, a black woman whose cancer cells researchers harvested without her knowledge; the story will soon be an HBO film. On Broadway, the hit musical Memphis depicted the rise of rock and roll amid a violent response to an interracial romance. Another musical, this one about the injustice perpetrated in the 1930s upon the Scottsboro Boys, was brought from Off Broadway to the Great White Way despite highly mixed reviews, because its (white) creators and backers thought it too important not to be more widely seen.

And we also live in an era when history textbooks are dedicated to chronicling slavery to such an extent that critics decry the decrease in space devoted to other aspects of history, and when university leaders consider it more important that an undergraduate know what institutional racism is than what the Munich Agreement was. All of this is why a month dedicated to black history now feels like a month dedicated to seat belts. Both are now part of the fabric of American life, with black history almost as insistent on any wakeful person’s attention as the pinging sound in a car when you don’t buckle up.

It can be strangely hard to admit that a battle has been won. But especially considering that the typical white person isn’t exactly a walking encyclopedia of “white” history, it’s time to admit that America knows its black history as well as anyone has reason to wish it to.

John H. McWhorter is a City Journal contributing editor.

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