MCCARTER, WILLIAM MATT
Southwestern Illinois College
Southwestern Illinois College
In 2005, Morgan Freeman set off an important debate about the value of Black History Month. This paper explores the criticisms of Freeman and prominent African American intellectuals about Black History Month. In addition, this paper traces the historicity of Black History Month from its humble beginnings as Carter G. Woodson’s “Negro History Week” to our contemporary celebration of “Black History Month” and asks if there was something lost along that journey. In addition, this paper posits some possible solutions to the criticisms raised by prominent African American intellectuals.
In 2005, during a 60 Minutes interview with Mike Wallace, the actor Morgan Freeman, widely known for his film role in Driving Miss Daisy, reignited a debate about the celebration of the achievements of African-Americans during Black History Month. According to Freeman, there should be no Black History Month. He has publicly criticized the nation’s celebration of Black History Month and claims that he does not participate in any of the events related to Black History Month. Freeman told Mike Wallace, “I don’t want a black history month. Black history is American history.” Morgan Freeman went on to ask “Are you going to relegate my history to a month?” and noted that there was no “white history month.” According to Freeman, the only way to end racism is to stop talking about it. Freeman then told Mike Wallace, “I am going to stop calling you a white man and I’m going to ask you to stop calling me a black man.” In the interview, Freeman raises an important question, “Is Black History Month still relevant in contemporary American society?
Black History Month was founded by the historian and educator, Carter G. Woodson, in 1926. At this point in time, Woodson’s creation was known as Negro History Week and was to be celebrated during the second week of February. Woodson chose this week because both Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, two heroes to African-Americans, were born during that week. According to Pero Gaglo Dagbovie, Assistant Professor of History and African American and African Studies at Michigan State University and author of “Of All Our Studies, History Is Best Qualified to Reward Our Research: Black History’s Relevance to the Hip Hop Generation,” Woodson created Negro History Week to integrate the teaching of black history into the curricula of America’s schools. At the same time, Woodson hoped to expose the black masses, especially the youth, to black history. In addition, Dagbovie claims that Woodson also believed that by exposing whites to the accomplishments of African-Americans, he could help to eliminate racial prejudice. Essentially, the purpose of Black History Month, at least according to its founder, Carter G. Woodson, was, first, to give blacks a sense of pride in their accomplishments and, second, to educate whites on the contributions that African-Americans have made to the nation. Dagbovie observes that many of Woodson’s colleagues believed that Woodson’s founding of Negro History Week was his most “characteristic creation.” He goes on to add that Luther Porter Jackson called Negro History Week Woodson’s “greatest influence upon the public.”
If one of Woodson’s primary goals was to expose black youth to African-American history and give them a sense of pride in their accomplishments, Woodson certainly achieved that goal in the life of Harold W. Cruse, Professor Emeritus of History and Afro-American Studies at the University of Michigan. In an interview with the editors of The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education called “Black History Month: Serious Truth Telling or a Triumph in Tokenism?” Cruse claims that Black History Month (or Negro History Week as it was first conceived by Woodson) “was an influential annual celebration that marked the real beginnings of my youthful intellectual life in Harlem, New York.” Cruse connects Woodson’s work in developing Negro History Week to his 1916 founding of The Journal of Negro History. In addition, Cruse points out that another important cultural institution was founded in 1926: The Schomburg Research Library in Black History and Culture. According to Cruse, “the intimate histories of these three institutional developments undergirded the broader social impact of the Harlem Renaissance at the height of its fame and notoriety.”
Like Cruse, Gerald Horne, Director of the Institute of African-American Research at The University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, also speaks of Woodson’s work in the founding of The Journal of Negro History. According to Horne, under Woodson’s guidance “The Journal of Negro History played the role of the main trailblazer in revealing scores upon scores of untreated, under investigated, ignored, crucially overlooked, and poorly interpreted themes related to the black historical experience in the United States.” The Journal of Negro History was the place where scholars published their work but “Negro History Week” was the place where that work was showcased. It seemed that Woodson envisioned “Negro History Week” as a kind of conference where scholars would present their research on Black History. This was the means in which these scholars would change minds in American society. Horne speaks of this when he says: “Along with early pioneers in the field of history like J.A. Rogers, Shirley Graham DuBois, W.E.B. DuBois, Rayford Logan, Herbert Aptheker, and many others, intellectuals of various persuasions accepted the challenge” that Woodson presented them with. Horne goes on to add that these scholars “proceeded to produce a bevy of books that changed minds as they changed the historiography of African and African-American studies.”
Gerald Horne provides some of the social, cultural, and historical context that surrounded Woodson’s founding of “Negro History Week.” According to Horne, “when the heroic Carter G. Woodson initiated this worthy observance, a horrid Jim Crow stalked the land and much of Africa languished under colonial domination.” Horne goes on to add that “the avatars of racism – at home and abroad – relied heavily on rancid doctrines of “white supremacy” and African inferiority in order to justify and rationalize their hegemony.” Horne explains that “Woodson’s initiative was, then, a corrective, intended to erode if not outweigh the vile discrimination that – in the first place – undergirded an atrocious economic exploitation of our labor.” In this sense, then, Black History Month was not just a matter of history or culture but was also a matter of politics. Darlene Clark Hine, Board of Trustees Professor of African American Studies and History at Northwestern University speaks of this in the article, John Hope Franklin and Black History in Transition, when she writes that Black History Month is “grounded in specific African American historical and ideological orientation, which insists that the acquisition of knowledge of the past in an invaluable cultural, intellectual, and political resource.” Hine goes on to add that “black history, art, literature, and dynamic expressive culture, including dance, music, and film, are components of an arsenal of counter-discourses that have historically refused to pay homage to white supremacist discourses.” Therefore, for Hine, Black History Month is a vehicle for nourishing “oppositional consciousness” and absorbing “the pain of racist discrimination.” Hine, like Woodson, sees Black History Month as a way to “deflect group internalization of negative portrayals, stereotypes, and denials of black humanity.”
John Hope Franklin, the subject of Hines research who is frequently called “the historian of the century” in academic history circles and James B. Duke Professor Emeritus of History at Duke University was a contemporary of Carter G. Woodson. Franklin claims that “ten years after Carter G. Woodson founded Negro History Week; I attended my first meeting of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History.” Franklin points out that “at that meeting Woodson said that he looked forward to the time when it would not be necessary to set aside a “week” to call attention to the contributions of Negroes to the life of this country.” According to Franklin, Woodson “fervently hoped that soon, the history of African Americans would become an integral part of American history and would be observed throughout the year.” Allen Ballard, Professor of History and Africana Studies at the State University of New York at Albany claims that “the purpose of Negro History Week was clear – to give us an intellectual and emotional anchor in the midst of overt racism, legal segregation, and the attendant myths of white superiority.” According to Franklin, Woodson wanted African American History to become a part of American History (as it is) and not remain a subject in and of itself. Ballard claims that Negro History Week was organized in the context of overt racism, Jim Crow segregation, and white supremacy. It appears that both Franklin and Ballard would agree that neither of their concerns is particularly relevant in contemporary America and that they, too, would concur with Morgan Freeman and abolish Black History Month.
However, Reavis L. Mitchell, Jr. Chair of the Department of History at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee reminds us that “when Carter G. Woodson collaborated in 1926 with other African-American scholars to organize Negro History Week” the point was to “ensure inclusiveness within the history of the United States.” Mitchell explains that “African Americans have participated in every aspect of America’s birth and development and have made many outstanding and vital contributions.” In addition, Mitchell contextualizes his remarks by claiming that “for many years, African Americans of every region of the country and of every social class expressed frustration and emptiness created by the lack of information or incorrect information regarding the African past and the African American experience.” In this sense, then, Woodson’s creation of Negro History Week is much more than just history or politics, it is a kind of cultural awareness that leads to self-validation. It is about one’s identity. Mitchell speaks of this when he writes “To thine own self be true is much more than a Shakespearian admonition. Self-awareness, self-knowledge, and the knowledge of one’s past are prerequisites for human intellectual and emotional fullness.” Mitchell reminds his readers of the words of a pioneer of African American history, George Washington Williams, who in the 1880’s, explained that African American history must not be forgotten. “For too long,” Williams writes, “we’ve allowed others to tell our story!”
It is evident that the meaning, the purpose, and the function of Negro History Week have undergone a significant transformation since it was conceived by Carter G. Woodson in 1926. Pero Gaglo Dagbovie explains that black history “as a field of academic inquiry, a philosophy, and as a weapon in the fight for racial equality” has also been transformed throughout the 20th century. Woodson’s creation of Negro History Week in 1926 and the subsequent scholarship by Woodson and others in The Journal of Negro History paved the way for a new generation of scholars whose work would not only transform how American’s saw African American History but would also transform Negro History Week as well. Dagbovie speaks to this when he writes “building upon institutions and paradigms created by Carter G. Woodson and other contributors to the early black history movement, black and white historians and scores of black activists during the Black Power era significantly transformed the systematic study and day-to-day application of black history.” One of the more prominent historians of the Black Power era, William Van Deburg explained how young blacks in the late sixties and early seventies drew upon black history as “a wellspring of group strength and staying power.” However, this “well spring of group strength and staying power” soon became a subculture of style. August Meier and Elliott Rudwick make this point clear in Black History and the Historical Profession: 1915-1980 when they write “Afro-American history had become fashionable, a ‘hot’ subject finally legitimated as a scholarly specialty.” It seems that while African American History gained traction in the ivory towers of academia, it began to lose its appeal in everyday life. Harold Cruse talks about this in his book, The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual: A Historical Analysis of the Failure of Black Leadership. Cruse claims that young black intellectuals were “uninterested in history” and indicted those young blacks in the conclusion of his book:
The farther the Negro gets from his historical antecedents in time, the more tenuous become his conceptual ties, the emptier his social conceptions, the more superficial his visions. His one great and present hope is to know and understand his Afro-American history in the United States more profoundly. Failing that, and failing to create a new synthesis and social theory of action, he will suffer the historical fate described by the philosopher who warned that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
It is important to note that while African American History did not always have the academic credentials that it earned through organizations like The Schomburg Research Library in Black History and Culture, publications like The Journal of Negro History, and the cultural traditions that were celebrated during Woodson’s Negro History Week, there was a very strong grass roots presence in terms of African American History. Aldon Morris speaks of this grass roots presence in his book, The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement: Black Communities Organizing For Change. In the book, Morris argues that civil rights leaders were very much aware that they were a part of the “rich tradition of protest” that was “transmitted across generations by older relatives, black educational institutions, churches and protest organizations.” The historian, John Hope Franklin, wrote an article in Negro Digest in 1966 called “Pioneer Negro Historians” in which he chronicled the achievements of black historians ranging from James W. C. Pennington’s A Text Book of the Origins and History of Colored People from 1841 through the works of W.E.B. DuBois and Carter G. Woodson. In the article, Franklin concluded his essay with a strong appeal to the pathos of his audience: “One of the most cruel things that one could do today would be to forget or ignore pioneers such as these early Negro historians” and suggested that “one of the most praiseworthy things one could do would be to recognize the enormous importance of their keeping the light of truth flickering until it could be kindled by greater resources and many more hands.”
Those “greater resources and many more hands” came in 1976 when, as a result of the work of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History in terms of making Woodson’s Negro History Week popular in American culture, “Negro History Week” became “Black History Month.” Then President Gerald R. Ford urged Americans to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.” One would imagine that Woodson would have been proud to have seen his “Negro History Week,” a celebration that had only been popular in the black community, become “Black History Month,” a cultural celebration that was now so mainstream that everyone across the nation celebrated Black achievements during the month of February. However, John Hope Franklin, a contemporary of Woodson, explains that in his view, “the expansion of the ‘week’ into a ‘month’ does not necessarily mean that we are moving toward the Woodson ideal” and goes on to add that “the commercialization of the ‘month’ provides hucksters with a longer period in which to sell their trinkets and souvenirs, corporations a greater opportunity to display their special brand of ‘civic awareness’ and lecturers the golden chance to show off their knowledge of black history.”
John Hope Franklin’s concern about the commercialization of Black History Month is echoed by Morgan Freeman. Like Franklin and Freeman, many of those in the African American community are skeptical about Black History Month because “singling out African Americans for special attention in February reinforces white beliefs that black history is not worthy of general recognition.” Freeman underscored this point in his interview with Mike Wallace when he said “Are you going to relegate my history to a month?” In addition, many in the African American community feel that “Black History Month has been usurped by large corporations such as Philip Morris, Anheuser-Busch, and Coca-Cola.” These are the “hucksters” who “display their special brand of civic awareness” that John Hope Franklin talked about. Many in the African American community believe that these “hucksters” “make token efforts to promote an awareness of black history in an effort to further their marketing efforts in the black community.”
Comedian Dick Gregory speaks of the cynicism about Black History Month and the tokenism that seems to surround it when he says “Wouldn’t you know that when they got around to giving us a month, it would be the month of February with all of them days missing.” It is difficult to say when exactly Black History Month became what some see as an exercise in tokenism and another opportunity for corporations to sell products. However, one must admit that this is an inevitable transition in a capitalist nation like the United States. In fact, there were likely those profit seekers who exploited blacks and black history during the genesis and tenure of Woodson’s “Negro History Week.” Pero Gaglo Dagbovie explains that “by the late 1970’s many U.S. corporations capitalized on Black History Month and on the vestiges of black cultural pride left over from the Black Power era.” This reminds us that “blaxploitation” went far beyond the American film industry. “By the mid 1980’s,” Dagbovie claims, “Black History Month was being directly used by countless corporations to sell products.” According to Dagbovie, “During the 1990’s various black historians and scholars” including many of those cited in this paper “collectively voiced their concerns regarding the commercialization of Black History Month.” Dagbovie reminds us that “currently, companies like Campus Marketing Specialists, Inc. are seeking to make profits off of the history of the African American struggle by mass marketing Black History Month posters, pens, notepads, buttons, key tags, bookmarks, stadium caps and faux Kente cloth scarves.” Morgan Freeman’s comments in his interview with Mike Wallace echo the sentiments of many of these black intellectuals.
Like Freeman, many in the African American Community see the celebration of Black History Month as being a bit of a fraud. “Like college honorary degrees conferred on blacks and renaming streets in inner city neighborhoods for African-American heroes, Black History Month, in the opinion of many, is simply a guilt-driven public relations scam to pacify blacks.” Earl Ofari Hutchinson, President of the National Alliance for Positive Action and columnist for The Huffington Post, reminded Americans that Carter G. Woodson “wanted to rescue black people’s accomplishments from the netherworld of American history and make them a source of pride for blacks and all Americans.” While he acknowledges that “Today Black History Month is an established tradition,” he also claims that “then February ends, and it’s back to business as usual.” For Hutchinson, business as usual means that “Black achievements vanish from the screen, the concert halls, and the speeches of politicians.” Like Freeman, Hutchinson also calls for an end to Black History Month as we know it. He writes “it’s time to end this annual disappearing act. Black contributions to society should be celebrated every month.” Earl Ofari Hutchinson, Morgan Freeman, and the father of Black History Month, Carter G. Woodson all come to similar conclusions about Black History – Black History is American history and should be celebrated as such. Hutchinson writes “when the experience of blacks is accepted as central to the American story, black history will be what it always should have been – American history.”
John Hope Franklin, a contemporary of Carter G. Woodson claims that he now rejects public appearances during the month of February. “I’m trying to make every month Black History Month,” claims Franklin. The prominent African-American intellectual and Distinguished Professor in Residence at Berea College, bell hooks, is also turning down dozens of requests for lectures during Black History Month. “If they want me in February, they should want me the rest of the year, too,” exclaims hooks. Lynn Ricot, a columnist for the Yale Daily News claims that “February is the month where blacks are told to be proud of themselves.” It appears that many intellectuals from the African American community and public figures like Morgan Freeman are no longer playing that game. Probably the best metaphor for the way in which many contemporary Americans treat Black History Month is the placebo metaphor used by Nick Charles, a reporter for the New York Daily News. Charles writes: “Until Black History Month is no longer paraded as evidence of black inclusion, and becomes the site of resistance, reflection, and struggle that its founder Carter G. Woodson hoped Negro History Week was, it will continue to be little more than the effective cultural placebo it is.”
While Black History Month may not fulfill the purposes initially desired by Carter G. Woodson when he conceived of Negro History Week in 1926, one must ask, “Should we make the perfect the enemy of the good” when it comes to Black History Month? Many of the scholars that criticize what Black History Month has become also claim that it is still relevant and useful to contemporary Americans. For example, John Hope Franklin claims that “Black History Month serves a useful purpose for there can be no doubt that we have not yet reached the point where there is widespread knowledge that, as Dr. Woodson liked to phrase it ‘the Negro played a not inconsiderable role in the making of America.’” Likewise, Allen Ballard also claims that Black History Month is still relevant. Ballard writes “If anything, the need for such a program is even more evident today that it was in my early childhood. Television – both black and white sponsored – literally suffuses the American public with negative images of black people.” Ballard goes on to add that “At the very least, the celebration of Black History Month presents the opportunity for countering this perception.”[57 Pero Gaglo Dagbovie admits that “Theoretically, in the tradition of Carter G. Woodson, I maintain that black history can still help foster healthy black youth identity and contribute to American social and educational reform.”
Instead of doing away with Black History Month as Morgan Freeman would like to see happen, Gerald Horne, a fellow critic of how Black History Month is celebrated, suggests that it is necessary but that it needs to be “tinkered with.” Horne argues that “the problem today is not that Black History Month is unnecessary; the problem – as with so many other aspects of the tortured debate in this nation on race – is that the debate has not ventured much beyond the parameters of what was useful in say, 1963.” When one reads Horne’s claims about the problem with Black History Month, then the images of countless references to Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech echoes through one’s memory. Indeed, Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech is one of the more popular topics for presentations because it is safe and doesn’t challenge the narrative of the dominant class. For Horne, this kind of celebration is not useful – it is tokenism. Horne insists that “a Black History Month that is useful should provide us with guidance as to how we reached the point where we are today and, quite simply, should not just be an antiquarian history for history’s sake.”
For Gerald Horne, “the essential question to be asked is not whether Black history Month serves a useful purpose either to white publishers or for high profile black academics speaking calendars. The real question is to what degree blacks – scholars, students, and others – support or celebrate Black History Month as an important institution for black life.” Perhaps if more prominent African Americans like Morgan Freeman and bell hooks spoke out about Black History Month then all of America would reevaluate what Black History Month means to American life. Cornel West, Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University in response to a question about Martin Luther King claimed that “we have to resist the ‘santaclausification’ of Martin Luther King.” He claimed that contemporary depictions of Martin Luther King were sanitized. In many ways, we can say the same thing about Black History Month and that is what Morgan Freeman took issue with. That is what many of these prominent African American intellectuals take issue with.
Black History Month has become a sanitized and commercialized event that has little if any positive impact on Americans and American life whatsoever. Americans pause and politely listen to another program on Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech so that they don’t have to face the messy complications of real issues that are not only important to the African American community but issues that are important to all Americans – issues like education, jobs, and health care – issues that take America beyond 1963. Morgan Freeman has sent a shot across the bow. Americans have a choice: we can either rekindle the fire that burned in Carter G. Woodson as he created Negro History Week back in 1926 or we can do nothing and watch Black History Month continue to dwindle away into nothing more than a commercial venture.
Because American capitalism is so pervasive, it is easy for Americans to get caught up in the commodification of culture. Black History Month becomes part of the tokenism that suffers under the label of “multiculturalism.” In our relentless pursuit of “diversity,” we Americans celebrate that diversity by eating Thai food. We watch folklorico brought to us by the makers of the burrito, consume manga brought to us by the makers of the Toyota, and before long will likely be saving some of our hard earned American dollars at a white sale at Macy’s in honor of Black History Month.
"Black History Month: Education or Tokenism?" The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education 3 (1994): 30-31. Print.
Ballard, Allen. "Black History Month: Serious Truth Telling or a Triumph in Tokenism?" The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education 18 (1997): 87-92. Print.
Cruse, Harold. "Black History Month: Serious Truth Telling or a Triumph in Tokenism?" The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education 18 (1997): 87-92. Print.
Cruse, Harold. The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual: A Historical Analysis of the Failure of Black Leadership. New York: NYRB Classics, 2005. 161. Print.
Dagbovie, Pero G. "Of All Our Studies, History Is Best Qualified to Reward Our Research: Black History's Relevance to the Hip Hop Generation." The Journal of African American History 90.3 (2005): 299-323. Print.
Ford, Gerald R. "President Gerald R. Ford's Message on th." 10 Feb. 1976. Web. 18 Dec. 2012. <http://www.ford.utexas.edu/library/speeches/760074.htm>.
Franklin, John H. "Black History Month: Serious Truth Telling or a Triumph in Tokenism?" The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education 18 (1997): 87-92. Print.
Franklin, John H. "Pioneer Negro Historians." Negro Digest Feb. 1966: 8-9. Print.
Freeman, Morgan. Interview. "Morgan Freedman on Black History Month." 60 Minutes. CBS. Dec. 2005. Web. 17 Dec. 2012. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GeixtYS-P3s>.
Hine, Darlene C. "John Hope Franklin and Black History In Transition." The Journal of African American History 94.3 (2009): 354-61. Print.
Horne, Gerald. "Black History Month: Serious Truth Telling or a Triumph in Tokenism?" The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education 18 (1997): 87-92. Print.
Hutchinson, Earl O. "Black History is U.S. History." San Francisco Chronicle 8 Feb. 1999. Print.
Meier, August, and Elliott Rudwick. Black History and the Historical Profession: 1915-1980. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986. 161. Print.
Mitchell, Reavis. "Black History Month: Serious Truth Telling or a Triumph in Tokenism?" The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education 18 (1997): 87-92. Print.
Morris, Aldon. The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement: Black Communities Organizing For Change. New York: Free Press, 1986. x. Print.
Van Deburg, William. New Day in Babylon: The Black Power Movement and American Culture, 1965-1975. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992. 280. Print.
West, Cornel. Interview by Tavis Smiley. "Martin Luther King." The Tavis Smiley Show. PBS. 12 Jan. 2010. Television.
William Matthew McCarter lives in Southeast Missouri and is a Assistant Professor of Literature at Southwestern Illinois College. He earned a PhD in Literature from University of Texas at Arlington. He was named an National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Scholar five times. His latest book, Homo Redneckus: On Being Not Qwhite in America is available on Amazon.