Imagine going to a classroom and reading inspiring things about the people who look like you only one month in a year — and the shortest month at that. The rest of the year, history is defined by people who don’t look like you/don’t come from your communities. That will do damage to your self-worth.
All through my public school life, February was the only time of the year when I didn’t read only about black people being enslaved. It was the closest chance I got to seeing my interests actualized by someone who looked like me. Outside of Black History Month, black lives were only collectively referenced as slaves before the Civil War or as protesters being bitten by dogs and persecuted during the civil rights movement. This form of restrictive racial education made me feel inferior in ways I couldn’t unpack until I took Africana studies courses in college — a luxury most black Americans still don’t have, since only 15 percent are enrolled in degree-granting postsecondary institutions, according to a report by the National Center for Education Statistics.
I’m reminded of this every February as Black History Month is celebrated.
Following Black History Month’s initial celebration in 1970 by black educators and students at Kent State University, national recognition was truly embraced in 1976, when President Gerald Ford weighed in, saying, ”Seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”
Forty years later, though some progress has been made, black people are still left with only 28 days to celebrate their history.
In 2019, black people are still experiencing punishing disparities when compared with other Americans. Black people face the highest poverty (21.2 percent) and unemployment (5.9 percent) rates of any major racial group in the country. There is still inequity in how we are paid, represented, and included in government, media, and academia. Politically, we’ve had only one U.S. president, and now only three sitting U.S. senators and less than 12 percent of the 435 seats in Congress are held by black people. There are now only three black CEOs on the Fortune 500 list, and only 5 percent of major newsroom reporters are black. And while nearly 70 percent of NFL players are black, the league does not have a single black principal owner out of 32 teams.
But for one month, the nation makes it a point to honor the black innovators, leaders, and trailblazers it can’t seem to acknowledge any other time.
And that is why it’s time to hold schools, government, media, and corporations accountable by urging them to stop the pandering in February and recognize black history — and its people — all year round.
And yes, that would require us to cancel Black History Month in February.
For starters, the only reason why there has been a Black History Month is because America has a problem celebrating black lives in a positive way. The lack of diversity in newsrooms, politics, classrooms, boardrooms, and other spheres of influence affects the ways in which black people have been viewed historically. By segregating the celebration of black history into a separate month, we are basically permitting such a void in the way America validates black people’s experiences.
As long as America continues to embrace Black History Month in its current state, we are implying that we are OK with this form of segregation: That one month is for black people and the 11 others are for everyone else. Commodifying racial groups in such a binary way condones the very racism that Black History Month attempts to combat.
Black history is history. Period. To treat it as anything separate is reductive and racist.
We can rectify this disparity by canceling Black History Month. Instead, institutions must be held more accountable when it comes to consistently embracing black culture. That means schools must diversify their curriculums to acknowledge the existence of black people routinely. Corporations should be making investments in black communities not only during February but the many months after that. Seeing nuanced black faces and stories being told in the media should not be a special occasion.
It’s having this country recognize that doing all of the above isn’t noble or worthy of kudos. It’s just the right thing to do.
Ernest Owens is an award-winning journalist and CEO of Ernest Media Empire LLC.