I have always wondered if this was Woodson's only vision. And for years, I have never been certain. Because of Woodson, we do collectively acknowledge African-American contributions, but for only 28 days. Granted, this is 21 more days than Woodson's original seven, but I cannot say with certainty that if Woodson were alive to see this great nation come together to pay attention to its diverse past (even for only 28 days), he would be completely satisfied. I believe that he would take some solace that the desire to celebrate black achievement is prevalent. However, I do believe that he would question why these collected contributions and achievements are not acknowledged for the remaining 337 calendar days of the year. Woodson would wonder if black history is still not being adequately taught in classrooms or recorded in history books
Sadly, Woodson would learn that it is not. Black history is not a part of everyday life and learning. Now, the reasons for this continued separation of history, I can't fit on this one page alone. Agreed, race relations in American have come a long way, but we still have miles to go. Whether Woodson is rolling over in his grave because of the lack of ongoing acknowledgment of black history or how it has been pigeonholed so easily and thought of for only 28 days of a year, I do not know.
Black Americans, like any other person or group, want their history to be respected, not just tolerated. If we as Americans are taught that our actions define what we are and not who we are, then why, after 76 years since the inception of Negro History Week, does society still see color as a measure of potential or definition? As long as that remains, black history will always be an afterthought, a tolerated celebration for 28 days.
We as Americans have a long road ahead of us toward not just racial equality, but mutual respect. No member of another ethnic group is defined by color. He or she is a doctor, not a white doctor, a lawyer, not an Italian lawyer, a businessperson, not a Jewish businessperson. Their actions define what they are.
African-Americans, however, are not extended the same pleasantry. We are seen as black doctors, black lawyers, black businessmen. America has yet to transcend the barrier of color for African-Americans. Has the acknowledgment of achievements of black people been so easily reduced to 28 days? Seventy-six years after Woodson created Negro History Week, 50 years after the turbulent civil rights movement and fewer than 30 years since Jim Crow laws of segregation, have we not learned that achievements in history are a shared American history? Would it be naive to believe that we as Americans can celebrate all of the rich history offered by all who call themselves citizens 365 days a year?
Don't get me wrong, celebrating one's own heritage is necessary, because it promotes pride. But the overwhelming difference between acknowledging African-American history and that of any other ethnic group in America is that other history remains a constant point of reference throughout any given year. Mainstream history is still the dominant subject taught in schools and recorded in history books. I say that the acknowledgment of black history is greater than the sum of 28 days. Greater than the three or four African-Americans singled out and taught in schools during the month of February. Greater than programs that surface only once a year. We must learn to respect all of our shared history and engage in programs that highlight the achievements and contributions of all Americans.
As an American, I support this nation. As a historian, I respect the past. As an African-American, I marvel in my culture. But as a conscientious American, I want to learn about what made America, America. I want to learn about my history as an inclusive history. I want the next generation to know that blacks played a major role in the shaping of America. I want them to learn that Irish immigrants, though always free, toiled alongside enslaved African-Americans for the financial benefit of others. I want the youth to know that the Chinese helped forge and build the American West alongside black and Mexican cowboys. I want them to learn about the hypocrisy of "freedom for all," which referred only to the upper-class landowners and not the poor working-class whites, blacks and other immigrants. I want the next generation to know that history is, and must always be, acknowledged respectfully among all people, all of the time, not just a month at a time.
Indeed, Black History Month is a time for celebration. Advertised properly, it promotes pride among many African-Americans. It allows all Americans a platform to remember the past and reflect on the future. The month offers us an open stage. A willing ear. Black History Month, in short, is an opportunity. We should appropriately celebrate Black History Month with educational programs that take place throughout the year. If we achieved this, I believe that Dr. Woodson would be proud.
This, I believe, is how you appropriately celebrate Black History Month. You remember. You respect. You acknowledge for 365 days, and then, only then, you celebrate for 28. S
Charles E. Bethea, pictured, is executive director of the Black History Museum & Cultural Center of Virginia until March 15. That's when he, along with all the museum's staff but one, is being laid off. The museum is reducing its hours and considering its future because of budgetary concerns. Last year Bethea was named one of Style Weekly's "Top Forty Under 40."
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