Marc Lamont Hill: Make Black History Month a guidepost for year-round

Not so well known (from left): Garrett Morgan , who foresaw the traffic light; George Franklin Grant, who invented the golf tee; and Bayard Rustin, a principal architect of the 1963 March on Washington.
Not so well known (from left): Garrett Morgan , who foresaw the traffic light; George Franklin Grant, who invented the golf tee; and Bayard Rustin, a principal architect of the 1963 March on Washington.
Posted: February 09, 2012

IT'S BLACK History Month, a celebration that began in 1926 as "Negro History Week" and has morphed into a widely recognized and celebrated part of American culture. As a result, schools all around Philadelphia, and in most parts of the country not named Arizona, will pay particular attention to the lives, triumphs and contributions of black people in America.

Of course, many people remain infuriated by the idea of Black History Month. "Why isn't there a White History Month?" they often ask me. My answer? There are actually several White History Months. They go by funny names like: January, March, April, May, June, July, August, September, October, November and December.

In other words, there is no shortage of opportunity to talk about the contributions of whites to America. There has never been a systematic exclusion of whites from the story of America. Black History Month is a response to a world that remains willfully ignorant of the fact that America was built and sustained by the physical and intellectual labor of black bodies.

As a former Philadelphia high-school teacher and current college professor, I am constantly reminded of how little my students of all races know about the history of black people. Sure, they can rattle off the biggies like Harriet Tubman or Frederick Douglass. But few have heard of C.B. Brooks, who invented the street sweeper; Garrett Morgan, who invented a mechanical sign that was a precursor to the modern traffic light; George Franklin Grant, who invented the golf tee; or Bayard Rustin, a principal architect of the 1963 March on Washington. Black History Month serves as an opportunity to remind the world that every aspect of everyday life has been positively affected by the contributions of black Americans.

Black History Month also serves as a space to remind the world that black life existed before slavery. After all, contrary to popular belief, slaves were not brought to America. People were. This distinction allows us to remember the long and deep history of African people prior to their arrival on American shores in 1619. Black History Month creates a space to recognize the contributions of ancient Egypt, which created everything from glass to geometry to civilized government; or the Dogon tribe of Mali, which possessed advanced astronomical knowledge centuries before the invention of Europe or the telescope.

Simply put, we live in a world that still questions the intelligence, morality and fundamental humanity of black people. Black History Month challenges that by showing, in every way that civilization can be measured, that blacks have always been major contributors.

Sadly, though, most of us fall short.

Instead of recognizing the long string of black heroes like Anna Julia Cooper, Phillis Wheatley or Sojourner Truth, most schools simply show a special on Martin Luther King or have students eat soul food for lunch. Rather than showing how black people have consistently been America's cultural, religious and moral compass, most of us simply add black faces and names to the same old white story.

To truly realize the purpose of Black History Month, we must commit ourselves to telling different stories, uncovering new perspectives and spotlighting different stories. We must not only celebrate this month, but use it as a guidepost for understanding diversity and multiculturalism every day of the year.

If we truly realize this purpose, then one day Black History Month will no longer be necessary. Instead, it will be woven into the broader fabric of American life. For that to happen, though, we have a lot of work to do. Until we do that work, Black History Month is an important and necessary part of our culture.


Daily News editor-at-large Marc Lamont Hill is an associate professor of education at Columbia University and host of "Our World With Black Enterprise," which airs at 6 a.m. Sundays on TV-One. Contact him at MLH@marclamonthill.com.

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