Black History Is Not Just For Blacks

In his recent weekly radio address commemorating Black History Month, President Bush promised major hikes in funding for historically black colleges. The week before McDonalds Restaurants pledged to display African-America-themed posters in their U.S. restaurants during Black History Month. This seemed to signal recognition by America’s top elected official and one of the world’s best known corporations of the towering contributions of African-Americans to America’s traditions.


But why did Bush wait until Black History Month to announce the college fund increases? The presidents and administrators at historically black colleges for years have pleaded to state and federal officials for millions more to keep their doors open. More often than not their pleas have fallen on deaf ears.


In the past decade a number of black colleges have shut their doors, or drastically cut back programs. Yet, the demand to get into these colleges has soared. Nearly 20 percent of blacks now attend these colleges. Even so, Bush’s proposed budget increase for the colleges is a paltry $12 million. At the same time, why did McDonalds say that it would promote its campaign to celebrate black achievements only on a nationally syndicated black radio program, and in black publications?


Bush’s announcement of a fund increase for black colleges and the McDonalds targeting black media its promo campaign reinforces the deep-seeded public notion that African-American contributions can be pigeonholed into one month. And those contributions are still mostly for blacks too celebrate.


The lopping off of the African-American experience from the rest of American history is a big reason why most whites and Americans of all races are woefully ignorant and indifferent to their own past. For many Americans, and that includes many blacks, their knowledge of the historical contributions of blacks begins and ends with Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. They still don’t know that African-Americans played a major part in shaping America‘s institutions. Black inventors, explorers, scientists, architects and trade unionists helped construct the foundation of American industry. Black abolitionists, religious and civil rights leaders helped shape law, politics and religion in America. Black artists, writers and musicians gave America some of its most distinctive cultural art forms. The modern day civil rights movement not only broke down the legal barriers of segregation, it also opened the door of opportunity in government, business and at academic institutions for women, minorities.


This was precisely why the pioneer black scholar and educator, Carter G. Woodson initiated what was then called Negro History Week seventy-six years ago to break down the historical and cultural disconnect most Americans have from their history. Woodson wanted to reclaim black people’s history from the netherworld of American history and make it a source of pride for not just for blacks, but all Americans. In his day if blacks were mentioned in general history texts it was only in the section on the slavery.


But how much has really changed? During February, politicians designate special days, issue proclamations, and sponsor tributes to notable blacks. TV executives squeeze in most of their specials, documentaries and features on blacks. When the month ends its back to business as usual.


The question of why black contributions to American society aren’t celebrated every month has been repeatedly asked. Many blacks scream racism. But blaming racism for America‘s failure to recognize black contributions is not enough. The truth is that black historians and educators made a fundamental error during their big push in the 1960’s for black studies courses. They forgot that black history couldn’t be separated from American history. They failed to tell how the black experience has enriched the lives of Americans of all colors. Black history was isolated into a cubicle labeled “for blacks only.” It was treated by academics and textbook writers as little more than a footnote to the “real” history of America. When the furor over equality died down it became expendable.


There’s a way to end the systematic omission or self-serving exaggeration of black contributions to American society. Publishers should revise all classroom texts that compartmentalize black achievements into a single chapter (for example, slavery, or civil rights) and include them in all chapters. School administrators and teachers should make sure that black achievements are woven throughout the curriculum, from science and technology to the humanities. Public officials, and that includes President Bush, should commemorate black achievements in ceremonies throughout the entire year. Corporations should regularly feature black achievements in their advertising and promotional materials.


McDonalds says that it will display its African-American themed posters will stay up after February. The big test is whether other corporations will follow its example and also do more to promote African-American accomplishments throughout the year.


When the experience of blacks becomes accepted as a routine part of the whole of American experience, then and only then will black history be what it should have always been, something that all Americans take pride in and celebrate, and not just in February.


Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and columnist. Visit his news and opinion website: He is the author of The Crisis in Black and Black (Middle Passage Press).

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