USA: The brigade against Black History Month

USA: The brigade against Black History Month
  • PublishedSeptember 18, 2013

If Morgan Freeman, the Oscar-winning African-American actor, had his way there would be no Black History Month in the USA. “Ridiculous” is how Freeman, who has played Nelson Mandela, Malcolm X, and God in movies, describes it. Though his line of thinking is supported by many, there are many more who insist Black America still needs Black History Month, reports Leslie Goffe from New York.

Black History Month USA is a nationwide celebration recognised by the US government and observed by thousands of US schools and businesses, and by millions of African-Americans each February. Unlike its British counterpart, which is celebrated in October, Black History Month USA has been a fixture for 87 years – nearly a century.

But don’t tell the famous African-American Hollywood actor, Morgan Freeman. “Ridiculous” is how he describes the month-long celebration. “You are going to relegate my history to a month?”, Freeman protested when asked on US television a few years ago why he believed Black History Month (BHM) was ridiculous.

“Which month is White History Month?”, Freeman asked the reporter of European descent. Fuming, Freeman said, “I don’t want a Black History Month. Black history is American history.”

Well, he was both right and wrong. He was right when he said black history was an integral and inseparable part of American history. He was also right to say the history of Africans in America, from chattel slavery to the first black president, was infinitely too large, too extraordinarily complex, and just too damn rich, to be tackled in a single month; and the shortest month of the year, February, at that.

But Freeman – who is no Uncle Tom and has, in fact, long been a staunch defender of important black causes – was wrong to call for an end to Black History Month. However short or compressed the celebration might be, it is nonetheless an important month-long series of events that remind African-Americans of where they were yesterday, where they are today, and where they intend to be tomorrow.

Despite their increasing population, now said to be over 40 million, African-Americans are still considered a minority group in the larger American constellation, and they need events such as BHM to build solidarity among themselves and within the larger American society.

That is not to say Morgan Freeman does not have his supporters. There are many well-meaning African-Americans, and many not so well-meaning whites, who believe as Freeman does, that it is time to bring to a close the annual parade of important people and events in the history of black America.

Among those who want to call a halt is Trudy Bourgeois, an African-American entrepreneur. “Black History Month,” she says bluntly, “needs to go away.” It should have gone away a long time ago, she adds. “Are you shocked,” Bourgeois asks, “that I would say such a thing?”

And she is not alone. Clinton Yates, an African-American columnist at the Washington Post, confessed in a recent column that after years as an ardent adherent of Black History Month, he had begun to question its value.

“I wonder,” Yates wrote, “has Black History Month lost its purpose?” It had not, he concluded. But he is worried the celebration has “lost its way”. This view is supported by other people of African descent. Samuel Gebru, the director of an Ethiopian organisation in Massachusetts, says “Black History Month today is an anachronistic holiday that continues to isolate the history of African-Americans to one month – the shortest of the year.”

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