The first thing to understand is that this annual rite —a source of pride and curriculum opportunities for a lot of folks—is not confined to this country. It is also observed in Canada and the United Kingdom and it is ultimately about commemorating edifying milestones, events, and icons of the African diaspora.
It’s just that it is only controversial in the United States—the one nation that clung to the enslavement of Africans for some 400 years and then held them in state-enforced legal segregation and violence for a century following the Civil War that ostensibly freed them.
It arouses an annual sigh of impatience and contempt from some Americans.
Canada never sanctioned human slavery and Britain formally banned it by a parliamentary edict in 1833 called the Slavery Abolition Act. The Emancipation Proclamation, decreed by President Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863, was directed at black slaves in the seceded Confederate States that, alas, were not under the jurisdiction of the Union. [Lincoln, who intellectually opposed slavery, was also concerned that Britain might enter the war as an ally of the South and he wanted to seize a moral imperative.]
As much as Black History Month promotes education, discussion, and reconciliation through ideas, it arouses an annual sigh of impatience and contempt from some Americans that is not short of the breath of racism. “It’s Black History every month,” they mutter or declare openly. This happens in the same country that still more or less clings to an annual named holiday for Christopher Columbus—who stumbled onto American soil by mistake and then proceeded to ruthlessly instigate one of the most horrifying and enduring genocides of native tribes in the history of this planet.
Some individuals struggle with Black History Month because they, more thoughtfully, lament the compartmentalizing of this great, if tortuous epoch into an enumerated 30 days. The actor Morgan Freeman opposes the observance on the grounds that black history is American history and should not be so quantified. Others are concerned that the observance always points to the same catalog of heroes, including Dr. King, Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, Jackie Robinson, and such.
They contend that African American achievement and heroism extends far beyond a set group of luminaries and there are many lesser known champions and high moments beyond the obvious ones. It’s a good discussion to undertake in a classroom, a civic seminar, and even at home and by itself validates Black History Month.
It’s worth noting that what started as a “Negro History Week” in 1926 was calendar-connected to the birth dates of both Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. The creators of it specifically mandated the hope that it would be eliminated once the story of the African people is as venerated as that of all other peoples. Perhaps that day is nigh but the dispute is far from conclusive or free of racialism.
One argument that is inadmissible, however, is that we already "hear enough about African Americans." The more we know about this great people, the more we realize that they are America’s Hebrews and that none of us is free till all of us have left our psychological Egypt.
Ben Kamin’s books about Dr. Martin Luther King can be found via the above web site or on Amazon.com.