Today is the first day of Black History Month, and Denise Oliver-Velez writes about its importance. Currently an adjunct Professor of Anthropology and Women’s Studies at SUNY New Paltz, Oliver-Velez has been active in the Civil Rights movement and was co-founder and program director of Pacifica’s first minority-controlled radio station, WPFW-FM, in Washington DC. She begins her article:
“I will never forget my fifth grade schoolteacher in Brooklyn, New York, giving me an “F” on a report because I stated that Egypt was in Africa. Thankfully my parents went up to the school and visited the principal, and my grade was changed. However, my trust in teachers (other than my parents) was eroded. I’m grateful that they taught me black history at home, because it was not part of the grade school curricula.”
The precursor to Black History Month, “Negro History Week,” began in 1926. Historian Carter G. Woodson and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History selected that time because of its connection to the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln (February 12) and Frederick Douglass (February 14). Woodson wrote: announced the second week of February to be “Negro History Week.”
“Racism is not good for the majority, or those of us who fall into a category dubbed ‘minority.’ Neither is ignorance. And we have yet to eradicate the ignorance surrounding black history.”
Black students at Kent State were the impetus for changes in how black history was treated during the past four decades. Proposed by leaders of the Black United Students at Kent State University in February 1969, the Black History Month was officially recognized in 1976. GOP President Gerald Ford urged people in the United States to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”
Debates about the appropriateness of Black History Month include the complaints that white people in the U.S. aren’t allowed to name anything the “white ….” Racial and ethnic minorities can subject whites to a reverse bigotry every day is another complaint, most recently in response to the concern that the Oscar actor/actress nominations are all white. Others protest the NAACP and historically black colleges as racism by those who are not white.
The academy awards presentations, occurring during Black History Month, has no black nominees for actors, actresses, or best pictures featuring black actors. Actress—known for the movie Clueless—and Fox network commentator, Stacey Dash, responded to concern about the whiteness of the Oscars by saying that celebrating Black History Month and allowing cable entertainment network BET is counterproductive and racist. Dash said:
“If we don’t want segregation, then we need to get rid of channels like BET and the BET Awards and the [NAACP] Image Awards, where you are only awarded if you are black. If it were the other way around we would be up in arms. It’s a double standard. Just like there shouldn’t be a Black History Month. You know, we’re Americans, period. That’s it.”
After Dash said that BET should not exist, the network jokingly asked if it could get its check back for Dash’s appearance on its channel.
Actually, the BET Awards, hosted by Black Entertainment Television (BET) since 2000, recognize all talent in artists, actors, technicians, and entertainers—white, black, or other. BET’s programming also includes white, black, Latino and Asian actors. The NAACP Image Awards is for not only “people of color in the arts” but also “those individuals or groups who promote social justice through their creative endeavors.” Some award winners are Angelina Jolie, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Carlos Santana, Bono, Al Gore and Sam Smith. Dash has presented at the NAACP Image Awards.
Questioned about Dash’s statements on The View, Whoopi Goldberg said:
“[Black History Month is] not taught as it pertains to America. American history holds all of us—and [Dash] is right in that—but we’re not all treated like Americans. And one of the reasons there is a BET is because networks wouldn’t take a lot of the shows that have an all-black cast.”
In the same way, the Academy has moved movies away from diversity. Studios, producers, and directors know the importance of whiteness for Oscar winners. A 2012 Los Angeles Times survey of the 6,028 Academy Award voters showed that they were 94 percent white, 76 percent male, and an average of 63 years old.
“White Americans are the group with the longest and richest history of race-related violence, racial exclusion enforced by violence and intimidation and — even as of today — allowing all manner of major and essential social structures and services to remain substantially separate and unequal. White Americans have benefited from this system and still do today. Some more than others, to be sure, but, that’s the truth. And, maintaining these distances and benefits typically rank among the goals of those who seek to create exclusively white institutions, organizations and places today. To put this really simply, the NAACP and the KKK are not the same. Black History Month and a white nationalist celebrations are quite different. They don’t do the same things. They don’t have the same goals, and they have not shaped America in the same ways.”
After years of calling for a “White History Month,” Portland Community College is calling for April to be “Whiteness History Month” as a way to teach about race and racism. Conservatives rage that it’s “plainly designed to convince white students to despise themselves and their culture.”
At the same time, Texas schools are whitewashing the social studies curriculum. The state’s new textbooks state that Moses “played a bigger role in inspiring the Constitution than slavery did in starting the Civil War.” One and a half centuries after the end of the Civil War, at least 5 million children are taught that the biggest war within the United States was caused by “sectionalism, states’ rights”—and, oh yes, in an afterthought, slavery. It was, according to a Texas board of education member, a “side issue.” Millions of children throughout the rest of the nation are also taught the same thing because they buy the same textbooks that Texas demands.
Black History Month is important because it honors the past of an ethnic group brought to America in political bondage through sharing. It is a time when young people can hear the contributions and struggles of earlier generations when they were young. It is also a time to correct misrepresentations, misunderstandings, and fallacies about black culture. Historic leaders of the black community deserve honor for their sacrifices and suffering so that young people will grow up as stewards of privileges that their ancestors lacked. While media concentrate on rates or poverty, crime, and school dropouts, people need to also hear about the best of black accomplishments through the arts, business, politics, science, and other parts of American life.
Blacks have made a huge positive influence on the development of the United States; Black History Month is a time when all people can become more aware of these stories. White conservatives who think that racism doesn’t exist when blacks are silent become resentful when blacks speak. In a democracy, no one should have to be silent.