Commentary: While Some Have Doubts, Black History Month Continues to Serve a Purpose

The event once known as “Negro History Week” has expanded and continues to draw attention to achievements that might otherwise be overlooked.

Posted: 02/29/2012 06:10 PM EST

Now, with Black History Month behind us, there remain calls for America to end the practice of using February as a time to focus on the historic accomplishments of African-Americans.

The filmmaker Shukree Hassan Tilghman offers a fascinating take on the topic, arguing — at uncommonly great lengths — that Black History Month should be abolished.

“Black History Month, with its stock characters and not-so-subtle message that Black people only had history in slavery and civil rights — well, that was problematic, and indicative of a deeper American problem,” Tilghman argues. “If Black people could be thought of as footnotes in American history, what does this say about how we’re viewed in American society?”

Tilghman suggests that America should instead integrate Black history into the year-long curriculum in schools and elsewhere. And he is on a one-man crusade to accomplish just that.  He traveled throughout the country campaigning against Black History Month and filming the entire journey for a PBS documentary.

Tilghman’s passion for the topic is certainly admirable. And while the shortest month of the year seems rather a paltry amount of time to devote to African-American historical achievements, there is a strong risk that, without that month-long focus, there would be less attention paid to Black history.

As many know, Black History Month was the brainchild of Carter G. Woodson who, in the 1920s, announced that the second week of February would be “Negro History Week.” That week was chosen because it included the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.

By the 1970s, Negro History Week expanded to Black History Month. At the time, President Gerald 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.”

Woodson once said he hoped it would be eliminated eventually in the hope that Black history would become fundamental to the understanding of American history.

But that doesn’t seem to have happened in any appreciable way. In fact, if left to their own devices, schools, businesses and society in general would devote precious little time to any discussion of African-American history.

As it stands now, there are programs in schools, libraries, churches and civic events that honor the accomplishments of Black people every February. Black History Month events are as much a tradition at churches, schools and even the corporate world as the Christmas pageant.

Indeed, Black history in this country is, in fact, American history. But it is rather shameful how little American history is generally known. If any degree of concentrated focus on Black history for a single, albeit short month furthers the knowledge and appreciation of a group of people to the history of the United States and, for that matter, the world, what’s the harm?

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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