“The problems with relegating black history to one really short month, the shortest month, is not only are we telling the same stories over and over again – which are amazing, George Washington Carver is incredible, there’s nobody like Frederick Douglass – but there are so many.”
-Karyn Parsons, Actress
“Black History Month must be more than just a month of remembrance; it should be a tribute to our history and reminder of the work that lies in the months and years ahead.”
-Marty Meehan, President, University of Massachusetts
My Dear Readers,
Another Black History Month has come and gone. So, now that we have done our duty to give black people acknowledgment about their historical contributions, we can now put that stuff back in storage so that it can be dragged out again next year.
We celebrate black history month, but many of us do not understand its significance. The original celebration of black history was originally conceptualized by black historian Carter G. Woodson and the Association for the Study African-American Life and History, in 1929.
In the beginning, it was known as Negro History Week. The primary emphasis was on encouraging the coordinated teaching of the history of American blacks in the nation’s public schools. Woodson contended that the teaching of black history was essential to ensure the physical and intellectual survival of black identity within the broader society. He stated:
“If a race has no history and no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated.”
The creation of Negro History Week was met with an enthusiastic response. It encouraged racial pride, prompting the start of black history clubs, an increase in teacher interest, and the interest of progressive whites. Negro History grew in popularity during the following five decades with numerous mayors across endorsing it as a holiday.
In 1976, Black History Week, through the urging of black college students, was expanded to Black History Month. At the same time, the US government officially recognized it as part of the bicentennial celebration. President Gerald Ford encouraged Americans at the time to:
“Seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”
Over the recent decades, there has been the annual debate about the continued usefulness and fairness of a designated month dedicated to the history of one race. One view is that Black History Month encourages the “hero worship” of some historical figures rather than a greater appreciation of the larger social history of communities and their contributions.
Another view is that the celebration is shallow, racist and cheapens the contributions of African-Americans by limiting it to a 28-day period. In both views, the common theme is that although during Black History Month, students learn the names of a limited number of black pioneers and their contributions and achievements, they receive little or no background regarding the historical context and the fact that these individuals lived and prospered despite deep-seated racism.
There is one fact that both views can agree upon; both Black History Week and Black History Month were necessary during their respective eras due to the exclusion and minimization of historical facts about black Americans by white historians and writers. It is feasible that both communities, black and white, are hesitant to integrate black history into American History. In doing so, both communities would be vulnerable to examining their own psychological wounds that were created out of racism.
However, despite the fact that both communities operate from a different perspective, they are mutually dependent upon each other. More specifically, the black community is a closed system; isolated, psychologically wounded due to complex trauma, and economically unable to sustain itself. The white community, in contrast, is an open system that is politically strong and economically sustainable. The black community operates on a survivalist mentality where the white community flourishes.
Exclusion of black history from the context of American history allows the open system (white community) to focus on its successes and minimize the reporting of shameful or negative actions and/or behaviors that have led to its ability to flourish. The same can be stated regarding the closed system (black community), although it may be successfully argued that in the manner that Black History Month is currently taught, the focus is on contributions and achievements with little or no background on historical context. However, no action is being taken to move the teachings into the direction of focusing more on background and historical context.
As a result, while the white community remains passively quiet and the black community raising the issue and yet lacking action, both communities are successful in maintaining closure or the minimizing the opening of psychological wounds. It is clear that both communities would prefer to identify contributions and achievements that have positive imagery and not focus on background or historical events that hold negative substance. In order to do this, both communities rely on the strategies of avoidance and denial. These strategies are defined as:
- Avoidance is the act of keeping away from, preventing something from happening, or keeping oneself from doing something. Dodging, shunning and turning away are acts of avoidance.
- Denial is the failure to acknowledge an unacceptable truth or emotion. It can also be the refusal to accept the reality of an event or the reliability of information received. It can be a situation where a person is faced with a fact that is too uncomfortable to accept and rejects it instead, insisting that it is not true despite overwhelming evidence that it is.
To clarify, an example of “background and historical context that would open psychological wounds for both communities” would be the Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the African American Male.
The Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the African American Male has received marginal discussion by writers of American history. Furthermore, there are no significant contributors to African-American heritage involved, nor is there a mention of the study during Black History Month. This is an excellent example of why background and historical context is important. Because of the agenda of the open system (white community) powerful in utilizing medicine and science, and the ignorance of a closed system (black community), weakened and dependent, the health of an entire community was jeopardized by leaving a communicable disease untreated.
Although ethical standards, oversight, and safeguards have been implemented to prevent a recurrence of these abuses, the Tuskegee Syphilis Study has left an enduring legacy of distrust between the African-American community and the medical establishment. It has reinforced strongly held views that the white community in general and that both the federal government and medical establishment specifically have a significant level of disregard for the lives of African-Americans.
Concluding Words-Dr. Kane
“You are going to relegate my history to a month? I don’t want a black history month. Black history is American History.”
-Morgan Freeman, Actor/Director
Our children and generations to come are likely to inherit the psychological wounds of their parents unless we of the preceding generation are willing to stop the avoidance and denial behavior and begin to explore the background and historical context of incidents that happened either prior or during our lifetime.
James H. Jones, an historian, and specialist in bioethical issues, wrote in Bad Blood: The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment (1993)
“As a symbol of racism and medical malfeasance, the Tuskegee Study may never move the nation to action, but it will change the way Americans view illness. Hidden within the anger and anguish of those who decry the experiment is a plea for government authorities and medical officials to hear the fears of people whose faith has been damaged, to deal with their concerns directly, and to acknowledge the link between public health and community trust.
Government authorities and medical officials must strive to cleanse medicine of social infection by eliminating any type of racial or moral stereotypes of people or their illnesses. They must seek to build a health system that will make adequate health care available to all Americans. Anything less will leave some groups at risk, as it did the subjects of the Tuskegee Study.”
Norman Rockwell, in his masterful and classic painting “Before the Shot/ A Study for the Doctor’s Office,” documents a young white male child receiving a shot of penicillin, a common method following WWII. The painting depicts the young boy standing in a chair with his pants partly down waiting as the doctor prepares the injection. While waiting, the boy is reading the doctor’s framed degree. The painting emphasizes the trust society held at that time for the medical profession.
The blind trust that flourished during decades previous no longer exists…and perhaps that is a good thing. Blind trust in any institution or profession is misguided, submerged in arrogance and as in the Tuskegee Syphilis Study vulnerable to abuse and misuse.
“Respect all, love all, yet remember that trust is earned, not given away to the undeserving.”
-Ten Flashes of Light for the Journey of Life (Loving Me More)
Until the next crossroads….the journey continues