February 9, 2001
By Akilah Monifa
PACIFIC NEWS SERVICE
Black History Month has turned into a mundane, meaningless and commercialized farce.
The celebration was started in 1926 by the educator Carter G. Woodson as "Negro History Week." Woodson selected a week in February because that is the birth month of two heroes, Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln.
Woodson's purpose was to recognize the importance of black history to America. He never intended the celebration to continue.
Woodson "fervently hoped that soon the history of African Americans would become an integral part of American history and would be observed throughout the year," according to historian John Hope Franklin, "...down to his death in 1950, he continued to express the hope that Negro History Week would outlive its usefulness."
Instead, in 1976 Negro History Week became Black History Month. Many in the media take notice of this month, giving token nods by publishing articles about African Americans and airing special programs and movies. Museums and libraries hold special exhibits, lectures and events. And of course there are the omnipresent parades and food festivals.
As Lynn Elber, the Associated Press television writer recently wrote: "television barely dips a toe into the breadth and depth of black experience, so some amends are made in February."
Amends is the word. Black History Month has become a ready-made excuse to ignore African American history for the other 11 months of the year. It's little more than a bone to throw to us, not amends enough.
Our evolving story should be told it cannot just be bottled up and packaged in the shortest month of the year (or any other month for that matter).
At a 1998 symposium on the value of Black History Month, The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education noted that it has become a "marketing weapon" allowing advertisers and book publishers to boost sales and then abandon them for the remainder of the year. There are also special marketing efforts directed to the African- American communities during the month for products like liquor, cigarettes and sodas, according to the Journal.
Broadcast networks and cable channels can dust off old movies and show and re-show tired programs, add a few original programs and then forget about any commitment to diversity in front of and behind the cameras the remaining 11 months.
What is lost in this commercialization is the essence of Woodson's dream to recall the contributions of African Americans in history, industry, the arts and sciences and all aspects of our country.
Grade school students do benefit from the Black History Month curriculum, but most citizens don't gain much of an appreciation for African Americans in February or any other month, for that matter. For the record, February is also American Heart Month, International Boost Self-Esteem Month, International Embroidery Month, Library Lovers Month, National Cherry Month, National Children's Dental Health Month, National Snack Food Month, and last but not least Return Shopping Carts to the Supermarket Month.
M. Dion Thompson of the Baltimore Sun, who supports the continuation of Black History Month says, "[It] is coming and I don't know what to do, the calendar is going to be crammed with more events than I could possibly attend, even if I were cloned."
And that's the problem. We're kidding ourselves if we think
designating February as Black History Month we're really doing anything to honor African Americans or to combat racial prejudice in this country. For it is this prejudice that continues to divide us.
So, I will boycott Black History Month and instead of a month of perfunctory gestures, I will have a yearlong effort of recognizing African Americans who made and continue to make a contribution.
Akilah Monifa is a writer who lives in Oakland, California.