It’s time to rewrite Black History Month
It’s time to rewrite Black History Month
By SANDRA MARTIN
Tuesday, February 19, 2002 – Page R3
As Black History Month gears down for another year, I find myself wondering once again why we take part in this annual American feel-good project that ghettoizes Black experience in the United States into the shortest and bleakest month on the calendar. The celebration has very little relevance to black experience in this country. Yet every year we organize a few book launches, exhibits, library displays, readings and concerts. Then, phew, we pack it all up again for another year as we roll into March and Women’s History Month.
Racism and gender oppression are ongoing problems that aren’t going to be eradicated by annual festivities. The goal should be to incorporate the contributions of blacks and women into mainstream history. By designating a special month, we encourage educators and governments to marginalize blacks and women. At the same time, we send a message to writers and artists saying that their work can’t really compete on its own merits. It needs the boost of Black History Month to attract attention.
The problem with these well-intentioned initiatives is that the original conception gets lost as the event becomes institutionalized. Even in the United States, some blacks are refusing to go along with what they consider to be a marketing merry-go-round that has more to do with appeasement than recognition.
“What was a very good idea has sometimes changed into an art ghetto,” performance artist and sculptor Joyce J. Scott complained to the Wall Street Journal two years ago. She has actually created a performance about “Black Hysterical Month” which to her is the “shortest, darkest” month of the year.
In some places, celebrating ethnicity has backfired. In 1999, racially turbulent Inglewood High School in Los Angeles cancelled Black History Month and the annual Latino celebration of Cinco de Mayo in May in an effort to promote racial harmony. Principal Lowell Winston called instead for teachers to follow a “multicultural education approach” throughout the school year.
Ironically, Black History Month, which began as a week-long commemoration in Chicago in 1926, was intended as a short-term, finite measure to lever black achievements into mainstream teaching programs. Black educator and historian Carter Godwin Woodson lobbied to have the second week of February designated Negro History Week because it marked the birthdays of both Abraham Lincoln, who signed the Emancipation Proclamation that formally ended slavery in the U.S., and Frederick Douglass, the former slave, newspaper editor and abolitionist. Both are key figures in the American march from slavery to freedom.
Until his death in 1950, Woodson continued “to express the hope that Negro History Week would outlive its usefulness,” according to an article written by historian John Hope Franklin in the journal, Blacks in Higher Education.
Instead, his idea became swept up in the Bicentennial celebrations in 1976. Negro History Week was renamed and expanded to a month-long celebration and given national status the following year when Congress passed a resolution introduced by Republican Ralph Metcalfe. For many Americans the festivities now begin with the celebration of Martin Luther King’s birthday in mid-January.
What, you may ask, does any of this have to do with the experience of blacks in Canada? Very little is the answer. Our history is intrinsically different, a fact that was demonstrated by many slaves when they came here as black loyalists during the American Revolution and on the Underground Railroad before the Civil War. That is not to suggest that this country was, or is, free of racism. It is simply to say that if we are going to celebrate Black History Month, we should have our dates and facts accurate.
The significant date for Canadians in the history of slavery is 1793, not 1863. That is the year when the Upper Canada Abolition Act was passed under Lieutenant-Governor John Graves Simcoe. He freed any slave who settled in what is now Ontario, and stipulated that any child born of a slave mother should be free at the age of 25. This act was passed 40 years before the British government abolished slavery in its empire, which included Canada, in 1833.
That law came into effect on Aug. 1, 1834, which makes August a much more significant month to commemorate antiracism in Canadian history than February. Besides, we already celebrate Simcoe in Ontario on Aug. 1, although not normally for his role as an abolitionist. It would make some sense to shift our consciousness-raising awareness to the summer.
By adopting the American custom, we are denying the richness of our connections with blacks from the Caribbean and other parts of the world, a much more significant influx of immigrants in recent decades. If we must celebrate one group in our multicultural mosaic, then let’s dispense with Black History Month. Instead we should proclaim Black Culture Month for August — the month in which we already celebrate Caribana, and expand it to encompass all of our black citizens who have come here from other countries. After that, we can ask ourselves what we mean by black — and what exactly are we celebrating anyway.