Is Black History Month Still Relevant?
Cave Canem Faculty Members Reflect on Black History Month
This February is Black History Month, which some see as a positive reminder of the achievements of African-Americans through history. However the period of recognition has been criticized by others who feel that dedicating one month to African-American history separates it from American history as a whole.
To weigh in on this debate Samsponia Way contacted Colleen J. McElroy, Carl Phillips, and Natasha Trethewey, faculty members of African-American poetry workshop Cave Canem, and asked them for their thoughts on Black History Month’s relevance.
Critics of Black History Month say that the period of observance has outlived its usefulness. Do you feel that Black History Month continues to serve its intended purpose?
McElroy: Since I am in my 70s, I’ve had some time to adjust to Black History Month. Once it was Black History DAY, now it’s month. Still, the majority of Americans are surprised that there is a need for anything, all the while admitting they don’t know much about the subject at all.
Phillips: Yes, I do feel that Black History Month continues to serve its intended purpose, since it dedicates a portion of the year to focusing on Black history. I think the subject should be focused on throughout the year, of course, but the establishment of a particular month guarantees that our history will at least be examined, rather than being entirely overlooked.
Trethewey: I don’t think Black History Month has outlived its purpose yet. Until the teaching of Black history is fully integrated into the national, state, and local school curricula in the teaching of American history we will continue to need a designated period of observance.
Do you think a new approach needs to be taken to observing/celebrating African-American History?
McElroy: As long as there are Americans who are uninformed about African-American history, the observance of the month is vital. I would prefer that African-American representation not be considered marginal, and not questioned as an important segment of American history in general. But since that history is not taught in schools, or presented in the national discourse without the context of “special consideration,” it is necessary to maintain and expand the month of recognition.
Phillips: The only thing that should change is that African-American history should really be looked at as part of the study of history year-round. It seems to me impossible to study American history without including African-Americans at every point, since we’ve been here — and hence, part of history — from the very start.
Trethewey: I think we as Americans need to fully acknowledge Black history as all of ours — as integral to any full understanding of American history.
Do you have any thoughts on freedom of speech as it relates to Black History Month?
McElroy: To speak of the contributions of African Americans is not an issue of freedom of speech, but rather one that unites all Americans and gives voice to the multicultural diversity that has nurtured this country. It is not a “black” problem — it is the expression of American pride.
Do you have any book recommendations you’d like to share, in light of Black History Month?
McElroy: No I don’t have “a” book or any one set of books that reflects the experiences of African-Americans. ANY book about America, fiction or otherwise, reflects some aspect of that experience. As long as we persist in planting “special interest” on books, the more we marginalize and divide, and the more we talk in terms of division instead of unity.
Phillips: I tend to return to favorite pieces of literature, rather than a history book. So I often return to the poems of Robert Hayden, who certainly treats African American history in many of his poems. And I often re-read Baldwin — the essays, and my two favorite novels of his, Giovanni’s Room and Another Country.
Trethewey: I like Eric Foner’s Who Owns History? and Doug Blackmon’s Worse than Slavery. Neither of these writers is an African-American writer, but both books deal with important and often overlooked histories.
More Opinions on the Relevance of Black History Month:
PBS News Hour: Why Not Everyone Supports Black History Month
The Philly Post: “Why It’s Time to Abolish Black History Month”
The Baltimore Sun: “Black History is American History”