If there is one person who personifies the achievement and perseverance celebrated by African American History Month, it is Barack Obama. This past January, when delivering his presidential proclamation designating National African American History Month, America’s first ever non-white commander in chief marked February as “a time to tell those stories of freedom won and honor the individuals who wrote them.”
At the moment, you don’t need to consult a Black Studies curriculum to be presented with versions of historical events that have particular significance to black Americans. Pop into the nearest multiplex and snag a ticket to Django Unchained, which—while clearly fiction—dramatizes the horrors of American slavery, or Lincoln, a more historically faithful motion picture that reveals the political machinations employed by the Great Emancipator, President Abraham Lincoln, to abolish slavery in the United States.
If Hollywood blockbusters don’t interest you, the Sundance Film Festival recently screened American Promise, a documentary that follows an African-American student and his parents from kindergarten to graduation.
With historically important narratives to the black community playing out in films and on television—and successful black leaders, scholars and entertainers visible at all levels of American society—some observers say it’s time to do away with the tradition.
“Black history is no longer ‘overlooked, ignored, and even suppressed,’ ” Charles C. W. Cooke writes in National Review. “It shouldn’t be separated, either.”
“We haven’t come close to bringing out all the kinds of stories of contribution that people of African descent have made to this country, and the world, because for the most part no one was documenting it early on.”
But supporters argue that the month is a vital celebration.
“I think we need it more than ever before,” Charmaine Jefferson, executive director of the California African American Museum, tells TakePart. “Not only are we losing generations, but there’s still so much to explore.”
Actor Morgan Freeman is among those who have criticized the observance, saying it unfairly splits off the history of blacks from the rest of the American experience. “Black history is American history,” Freeman said in a 2005 interview.
“We haven’t come close to bringing out all the kinds of stories of contribution that people of African descent have made to this country, and the world, because for the most part no one was documenting it early on,” she says. “So there’s a lot of opportunity.”
Carter Woodson, an historian and journalist, started the observance as a Negro History Week in the 1920s. February was picked because it coincided with the birthdays of Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, the slave-turned scholar. The week was expanded to a month in the 1970s, with Canada and Great Britain also adopting the observance.
Jefferson contends that the black community has watched its presence in American culture take a backward slide from where it was in the 1970s and 1980s, when TV series like The Cosby Show and the mini-series Roots aired.
“We came out of a period where we were starting to have more presence on television, on news, in corporations. We were really becoming a larger part of the fabric of what was visible in the U.S.,” she says. “But we seem to be going backward.”
Jefferson points out that the celebration of black history isn’t just about what happened in the 19th century. “New history is made every day," she says. “This is a time to celebrate.”
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