By Nathan Connolly
“Well this is Black History Month, so this is our little breakfast, our little get together,” said President Donald Trump while surrounded by African American supporters. Trump then made a curious reference to the nineteenth-century abolitionist and ex-slave, Frederick Douglass. “Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job,” he said, “and is getting recognized more and more, I notice.” With that, this year’s Black History month was off to an especially political and somewhat confusing start.
— Jessica M. Johnson (@jmjafrx) February 1, 2017
In years past, there’s been no shortage of debate over whether there should even be a Black History Month. Shukree Hassan Tilghman’s 2012 film, “More than a Month” offers an excellent account of the long and ongoing debate about the need and value of African American history’s allotted time on the calendar. There could be no question, though, that the Trump White House, with its many attempts to engage the African American past, was hoping to improve its political footing, not weaken it.
But the rest of February didn’t get much better. In response to a question about Coretta Scott-King’s 1986 condemnation of Jeff Sessions, Press Secretary Sean Spicer said he’d hoped, if alive, Scott-King would support Sessions’s 2016 nomination for Attorney General (doubtful). The Department of Education tweeted about W. E. B. Du Bois, only to misspell his name. The Trump Administration even revised the history of black colleges and universities (HBCUs) to fit its own talking points. Established as necessary sanctuaries against racism in higher education, HBCUs became, according to Education Secretary Besty DeVos, towering examples of the time-worn success of “school choice.” Throughout Black History month, the White House’s self-inflicted missteps provided rich material for commentary or comedy, and its own hashtag: #alternativeblacks.
Not whither Black History Month, but how?
Amrita Chakrabarti Myers, a professor at the Indiana University, noted, “When I travel for Black History Month to give talks, it’s not really the black students that I’m talking to.” Myers admitted that the smattering of black students at predominantly white institutions are “excited that I’m there,” but at most places the people packing auditoriums are white.
Myers believes that people who might not be open to learning about the history of racial injustice at, perhaps, a Black Lives Matter event, are more likely to attend a Black History Month function. And it’s important to reach those unfamiliar with the African American past. “When we get those folks in the door,” she said, “we have a chance to do some real teaching and some real educating to folks who literally have no clue about black history.”
The question of white reception and acceptability has shaped the reception of African American history since before the mid-1920s, when Carter G. Woodson, a black Harvard graduate, established “Negro History Week.” Woodson was intent on highlighting black contributions to American history and culture. He also helped launched a moment in which African American historians, like Du Bois and John Hope Franklin, made it their mission to push white audiences to integrate black history into the mainstream.
More political than not
People on both ends of the political spectrum see Black History Month as an important political opening. Historians often find themselves stretched to meet all of the invitations to speak at K-12 schools, government offices, and at university gatherings. Political commentators and reporters use the time to make greater demands on their audiences to consider the importance of racial justice or black representation. And in a moment where political and commercial concerns collide, February even allows corporations to safely target black consumers without fear of being considered negligent to “mainstream” (i.e. white) concerns.
Arguably, no one has been more effective at introducing white Americans to African American history and culture in recent years than Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Between his work on public television, his various edited volumes, popular writing, consulting and other projects, Gates has become, for many white Americans, the single most recognizable scholar of black history.
When asked about Black History Month and its political meaning, Gates, a professor at Harvard, highlighted its importance to African Americans’ sense of self. As a child of the 1950s and 1960s, Gates noted that “a lot of black Americans didn’t want to have anything to do with black Africa.” But by the late 1960s, Woodson’s “Negro History Week” ran headlong into the politics of Black Power, creating an opening that inspired many African Americans to celebrate black ethnicity and connections to Africa and the wider Americas. This proved a critical amendment to a mere, if very much needed, celebration of black people’s Americanness. It also inspired Gates to produce two African-centered documentary treatments on PBS, “Wonders of the African World” (1999) and “Africa’s Great Civilizations” (2017).
Recognizing both culture and history
In 1976, the expansion of “Negro History Week” into Black History Month helped inspire an even broader ethnic revival in American popular culture. Alex Haley’s Roots was read and later viewed on television. Running parallel were celebrations of Euro-American ethnicity through such theater and cinema as “Fiddler on the Roof,” “The Godfather,” and “Rocky.” Ethnic revivalism also advanced a national recognition of America as a multicultural country built on both immigration and slavery.
Of course, the emphasis on multiculturalism and historical commemoration in the late 1970s brought developments that weakened other aspects of black politics. By the mid 1970s, afro-centrism and faith in black capitalism supplanted more revolutionary strains of Black Power, and references to institutional racism began receding from view. Then, in 1978 the U.S. Supreme Court transformed affirmative action from a program meant to redress historical wrongs to an instrument meant merely (and vaguely) to incorporate “diversity.”
The 1980s brought new public recognition of black cultural and political life, including the presidential candidacy of Jesse Jackson, the creation of Martin Luther King Day, and the expansion of hip-hop into a national and international musical form. But it was also the Reagan Era, which included targeted reductions in antipoverty programs and civil rights enforcement. What counted as Americanism and patriotism during this time,, particularly relative to black history, remained hotly contested. Through it all, popular remembrance of black history stood relegated to great black men or references to slavery and civil rights.
Walter Greason, a professor of history at Monmouth University, came of age during the 1980s. He recalled that during his youth, “the narrative was all Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver, maybe the rare mention of Harriet Tubman or Sojourner Truth.” Then, in the 1990s, Greason by his telling, was “transformed by the success of black academics.” He cited the work of Robin Kelley on the African Blood Brotherhood as his introduction to black radical intellectuals like Cyril Briggs. Greason also described how a new generation of scholarship made February not just a time to consider the most iconic black historical figures, but also a month to meditate on the black women’s movement and lesser known, but no less important, figures from the nineteenth- and early-twentieth century. Figures like Fannie Barrier Williams, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Samuel Delaney, and Henry Highland Garnet. “These are the folks that were not spoken of before the mid-’80s,” he said, “Now they come up somewhat frequently.”
Black history and Black History Month continued to gain prominence through the Clinton and Bush eras. In 1996, Bill Clinton awarded Rosa Parks the Presidential Medal of Freedom. This moment punctuated both the national importance of African American History and Parks’s singularly iconic life. President George W. Bush, in 2008, did the same for Ben Carson. “Throughout African American History Month,” Bush intoned, “we remember how individuals, African American leaders of all kinds, helped bring our nation together.”
Where do we go from here?
According to historian Brenna Greer, presidential and other mainstream framings of something as broad and diverse as African American history often reveal a deeper problem. Describing Black History Month as “very conservative,” Greer, a professor at Wellesley College, noted that “there’s a litmus test. If the [historical] figures don’t fit the right mold, we will make them fit.”
Greer points to Martin Luther King as the classic example of someone whose memory and political usefulness, particularly during Black History Month, helps maintain the status quo. “We’ll have the non-violent [King] but not the one who criticizes empire or Vietnam War, is part of the Poor People’s Campaign.” Under conventional historical treatments, the social forces that King and so many activists were up against can become caricatured and flattened as well. African Americans “are always fighting easily identifiable, bad, white people,” Greer said, “rather than necessarily a structure or institutional racism.”
Considering the flattening of history that often accompanies Black History Month, Ben Carson may well represent an even more striking example than King. Over the previous three decades, Carson had been elevated as a symbol of black excellence. He enjoyed notoriety for his remarkable accomplishment of separating conjoined twins in 1987. His 1996 memoir, Gifted Hands, became required reading on countless Black History Month reading lists. Carson’s journey from living in the poorest corners of Detroit to becoming a top neurosurgeon at Johns Hopkins University made him a fixture on Black History Month calendars.
But, with all of his notoriety, few were aware that Carson was a Republican. And during his run for that party’s presidential nomination, the doctor surprised many with his opposition to anti-poverty programs and affirmative action, given that he acknowledged publicly having benefited from both. Carson’s deep commitment to a literal interpretation of the Bible struck many as out of step with his impressive background in science. By the time he wound up at last month’s Black History Month breakfast next to President Donald Trump, Carson’s historical meaning had been thoroughly recast – from universally laudable black hero to emphatically ideological black conservative. Carson was still an icon. It was merely, as Walter Greason noted,that Trump had joined black mythmakers in “recogni[zing] the symbolic power of black iconography.”
When framed by Black History Month, popular recollections of Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, or even Ben Carson represent differences of degree rather than kind. In each instance, the dangers of elevating exceptional individuals threatens to overshadow a deeper understanding of the diversity of black cultures, the complexity of black politics, or the workings of black communities.
“I’ve never liked this whole idea about Black History Month being sort of a month to celebrate individuals,” Myers admitted. “For a long time, it was like the only people that were being talked about were Martin Luther King or Malcolm X. I sort of felt like, OK hang on, where are the women? Where are the grassroots individuals? Where are all of those average, everyday folks that never get a hearing?” When asked about Carson in particular, Myers noted, “I have no doubt that he’s a very gifted doctor. But that doesn’t make him someone that we should be idolizing as a Black History Month figure.”
Since the end of the Jim Crow era, presidents are not supposed to have questionable racial views. So, when we think about the political possibilities February now raises (and will continue to raise), it becomes clear that President Trump needed that Black History Month breakfast. For this reason, Trump ended Black History Month the same way that he started it—by singing its praises: “Tonight, as we mark the conclusion of our celebration of Black History Month, we are reminded of our Nation’s path toward civil rights and the work that still remains.”
On this point, one finds that rarest of things – a measure of bi-partisan consensus. “Our fight is never ever going to be done,” Gates said. We need to “keep telling these stories, repeating the stories, insisting that schools integrate the curriculum.”
Greer agrees, arguing that we shouldn’t contain the “revolutionary power and possibilities” of Black History Month. “Recognition, or consideration of the black experience is something that needs to be sustained, a continual thing.”
BackStory host Nathan Connolly is the Herbert Baxter Adams Associate Professor of History at Johns Hopkins University and the author of “A World More Concrete: Real Estate and the Remaking of Jim Crow South Florida.”
BackStory Digital Editor & Strategist