In the years leading up to the election of Barack Obama, and in the weeks since his inauguration, African Americans have been accruing historical milestones with unprecedented frequency.
First African American president. First African American RNC Chairman. The list goes on. As the number of firsts yet to be achieved dwindle, the increasing number of prominent African Americans is coming to seem less and less notable—in a good way. And for some, Black History month is coming to seem “quaint, jarring, anachronistic.”
Cynthia Tucker, of the Atlanta Journal constitution, has some valid points. She argues that Black History Month sets “the contributions of black Americans aside as separate and unequal,” calling it a “damaging form of apartheid.” And, in many ways, it’s true—if African American history were adequately integrated into American history as a whole, we wouldn’t need to set aside a special month during which we remember it. If we truly are moving into a post-racist era, Black History month starts to feel dangerously passe.
At the same time, there are some strong arguments for the continued observance of February as Black History month. Mary Mitchell, of the Chicago Sun-Times, points out that “in most American schools, students still learn more about white achievers than they do about black ones.” And John Ridley, speaking on NPR, makes a similar point about the failure of school curricula to fully absorb black history.
While the continuing improvement of American history syllabi should be at the top of the education agenda, I’d argue for the retention of Black History month even when we do feel that the subject has been fully integrated into American classrooms. As classrooms become increasingly global, highlighting particular aspects of world history is important as well. America’s relationship with race has been uniquely complex and ugly. For the sake of future generations, it’s a story that should always be given special attention.