Cooke’s article follows the usual scheme of the attack on Black History Month. He asserts that the undertaking was necessary before the 1960s, when de jure and de facto segregation ruled the land. Now, however, it’s outlived its usefulness and in fact is harming the ability of all Americans to gain a shared understanding of American history. Black History Month should be eliminated and the Black American experiences should be integrated into schools’ regular curriculum. “If there is still too little ‘Black history’ taught in America’s schools,” Cooke writes, “or if ‘Black history’ is being taught incorrectly — then we should change the curriculum. If Black Americans remain unfairly in the shadows, then the solution is to bring them out, not to sort and concentrate them by color.”
This is an argument built on sand. For one thing, Cooke cites no actual examples of the supposed sins of Black History Month — no examples of schools or school systems where Black history is taught only in February and ignored in the curriculum the rest of the year. No examples of colleges where Black studies courses ignore the impact of the other currents of American society. No examples where in either elementary and secondary schools or colleges there is what he calls the “equally absurd” repetitive focus on heroic Black figures.
These attacks on Black History Month ignore many things: They ignore how deeply Black history has already been “integrated” into broader examinations of American history, as even a cursory perusal of popular and scholarly books would indicate. They ignore how complex and searching explorations of Black history have become — as a forthcoming documentary airing next week on the Public Broadcasting Service on Whitney M. Young, Jr., the charismatic leader of the National Urban League from 1961 until his untimely death in 1971, will show.
Most of all, they ignore why over the last four decades other sub-groups of Americans have adopted the “special month” model. Cooke does list some of these: Women’s History Month, South Asian Heritage Month, Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month, Haitian Heritage Month, Jewish American Heritage Month, Caribbean-American Heritage Month, National Hispanic Heritage Month, National American Indian Heritage Month, and Alaskan Native Heritage Month.
Revealingly, he merely lists them, ignoring the implications of their founding, and the fact that, just like Black History Month, their establishment was approved by acts of Congress, and signed by Republican and Democratic presidents. In fact, just as Black History Month does, they underscore valid —and widespread—educational practice of focusing on particular facets of a broad topic and the widespread social-group practice of closely examining their particular experience in America.
And they do something else. They all echo the question that Carter G. Woodson’s Negro History Week, now Black History Month set before the nation more than 80 ago.
That question was never more powerfully expressed than in the penultimate line posed by Curtis Mayfield and The Impressions in the title track of their 1969 album, “This Is My Country:”
“Shall we perish unjust,” the song asks, “or live equal as a nation.”
(Lee A. Daniels is a longtime journalist based in New York City. His latest book is “Last Chance: The Political Threat to Black America.”)