Why Bother with Black History Month?

NB: All opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not represent the views of Palgrave Macmillan.

The U. S. has repealed slavery, passed the Civil Rights Act and twice elected a Black man to the U.S. Presidency. Do we really need Black History Month? Hasn’t the U.S. evolved to the point that Black history is synonymous with U. S. history?

Not by a mile. 

It was presumed—wrongly—before 1915 that Blacks of African descent had little history besides that of slavery.  So in 1915 Dr. Carter G. Woodson, founded the Association for the Study of African American Life and History.  In doing so he noted that the tradition in the U. S. was that Black people had no history.  He put it thus:

[Blacks] were overlooked, ignored, and even suppressed by the writers of history textbooks and the teachers who use them. Race prejudice is merely the logical result of tradition, the inevitable outcome of thorough instruction to the effect that the Negro has never contributed anything to the progress of mankind. Source: American National Biography Online

The historical struggles of Blacks like Woodson, William E. Du Bois, Ida B. Wells, Martin Luther King are very similar to the contemporary struggles of American Muslims as well as immigrants from Iraq, Iran, Syria, Yemen, Sudan, Libya and Somalia. 

There are vast differences between White History and Black History. White History celebrates whites and ignores people of color. How long will it be until we see a Black face on Mount Rushmore? As long as historians delete people of color from the picture, history makes white guys look really good. George Washington and the Founding Fathers were saints who selflessly risked their hides for democracy. White guys love to tell that version of history, but what are they leaving out? And why?

If we draw people of color into the picture, the Founding Fathers immediately take on new and alarming characteristics. If the Founding Fathers were determined to create a democracy, then why didn’t they invite people of color and women to attend the Continental Congresses? The answer is simple, but troubling. The Founding Fathers believed democracy was for “Real Men” only. The Founding Fathers viewed women, Native Peoples, African Americans and other people of color as unworthy sub-humans. 

Yikes! It turns out that the Founding Fathers were a bunch of women-hating, slave-holding, Indian-murdering racists. Now we can understand why white guys have always been so eager to whitewash history. When people of color and women enter the picture, white guys start looking like criminals. 

That is precisely why Black History Month is so important. If we only tell history from the perspective of the “Heroic White Guys,” we profoundly misrepresent the truth. The best example of this sort of claptrap is the Columbus Myth. If we delete 100 million First Peoples from the history of the Americas, then we can credit a greedy, directionally-challenged Italian with discovering America. For the sake of historical accuracy, we think deleting Native Americans from the history of the Americas is unreasonable. Doing so also permits white guys to characterize genocidal misanthropes like Columbus as altruistic humanitarians. By extension, if we don’t count all of the Indians that the Founding Fathers murdered, the women they abused, or the slaves they bought, raped and ruined, then they seem like really great guys. 

We believe it is possible to end racism in the USA -- and we explain exactly how to do that in our book, A Formula for Eradicating Racism. However, we will never end racism until we start telling ourselves the truth about racism. 

The Authors:

© Springer

Earl Smith is Emeritus Professor and the author of Race, Sport and the American Dream, among other titles. Earl Smith is Professor of Sociology and the Rubin Distinguished Professor of American Ethnic Studies at Wake Forest University, USA.  He is the Director of the Wake Forest University American Ethnic Studies Program. Smith is the former Chairperson of the Department of Sociology, Wake Forest University, from 1997-2005.  He is the author of numerous articles, book chapters, and books, including Gender, Power and Violence (2017), The Social Dynamics of Family Violence (2016), and Prisoner Reentry and Social Capital (2010). He is an adjunct professor and teaches courses in Sociology, African American Studies and Sport Management at George Mason University.

Timothy McGettigan is a professor of sociology at Colorado State University – Pueblo, USA. At present, McGettigan is helping to establish an Institute of Cannabis Research at CSU-Pueblo. His research interests are in the areas of anti-racism, social change, and science, technology and society (STS). His next book will explore the topics of free speech and thought-crime. He is a Fulbright Specialist and has been awarded Fulbright Scholarships at the Centre for Social Studies in Warsaw, Poland in 2002-2003, and at Mahidol University in Bangkok, Thailand in 2015.