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Americans Divided Over Black History Month
Poll results reveal mixed feelings about the month-long observance.By Melissa Segrest for MSN Lifestyle: Men
It's February, and the annual debate has begun. The subject of Black History Month becomes the centerpiece of many a water-cooler conversation.
A poll of almost 10,000 Americans conducted in January shows there is no consensus on the topic of Black History Month. The survey, conducted by MSN and Zogby International, found that 43 percent of Americans believe setting one month of the year to focus on a racially defined observance is a token gesture, while 39 percent say that is an opportunity to raise awareness of African-American history and accomplishments (18 percent are not sure).
MSN-Zogby Black History Month poll results
Is it a valuable and necessary way for African-American history—an essential part of American history—to be offered to the public?
Or is it, as one scholar wrote in the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, "simply a guilt-driven public relations scam to pacify blacks who otherwise receive no attention on the bread and butter issues of education, jobs, and health care?"
African-Americans have varying opinions on the issue, too. The poll found that 28 percent feel that dedicating only February to black history is a token gesture. Celebrities Morgan Freeman and Bill Cosby have spoken out against it. "I don't want a black history month," Freeman said on 60 Minutes. "Black history is American history." Comedians Chris Rock and Dick Gregory have made jokes about it. Recently, The Daily Show With Jon Stewart did a riff on the debate over Black History Month.
Yet, the majority of African-Americans—64 percent—says Black History Month is a good way to raise awareness of African-American history and accomplishments.
The whole debate would be met with a knowing nod from Carter G. Woodson (pictured above).
Woodson was the father of Black History Month. Many Americans don't know that he planted the seeds for the celebration back in 1926, when he created Negro History Week.
"It had a very wide response from the black community, and people from all over the country celebrated it immediately, but it was initially largely a celebration in the confines of the African-American community," says Daryl Michael Scott, the chairman of history at Howard University.
Woodson himself was a great chapter in African-American history. Born in 1875, the son of former slaves, at 17 he was an unschooled coalminer. Despite those humble origins, he went on to receive a doctorate in history from Harvard University.
He devoted his life to bringing the story of black history to all Americans. His inspiration for designating February as the month for Negro History Week came from the births of both Frederick Douglass (the revered African-American speaker who fought to end slavery) and President Abraham Lincoln.
In 1915, Woodson and several friends in Chicago established the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. Today, it's called the Association for the Study of African-American Life and History (http://asalh.org/) and is the official voice of Black History Month.
Over the decades, interest in Negro History Week grew. By the late 1930s, "whites in the north who are in control of certain kinds of institutions, libraries and universities started celebrating, too," Scott says. Mayors and governors also began to officially recognize Negro History Week, aware that African-American voters were important to their futures.
Woodson, who died in 1950, was proud of his accomplishments. "No other single thing," he said, "has done so much to dramatize the achievement of persons of African blood."
The association he founded has carried on his work.
"There are a lot of people who think you get Black History Month because of the black power movement" of the '60s and '70s, says Scott. But it was the evolution of Negro History Week that became, by presidential proclamation, Black History Month in 1976.
Woodson hoped that one day there would be no need for Negro History Week, and that black history would be taught every day as part of the study of American history. He also wanted separate black history studies at the higher levels of education, Scott says.
Even before his death, in the 1940s, Woodson was unhappy with the way things were going with Negro History Week. He decried shallow celebrations and self-aggrandizing statements. Today, there are complaints that our consumer culture and the corporate world are using Black History Month strictly for commercial purposes, Scott says.
Bruce Slater, the managing editor of The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, wasn't surprised by the MSN/Zogby Poll numbers. "I think generally in an ideal world we wouldn't need a Black History Month. It would be great if we didn't have to set aside a month to highlight the contributions of African-Americans," he says. "It would be nice if it was more fully incorporated with American history in general."
More and more, African-American scholars are beginning to resent the fact that in February "their opinions are sought out, and then they are ignored the rest of the year. … Some black scholars refuse to lecture in February because of that," Slater says.
Or, as Sarah Willie, an associate professor at Swarthmore College, put it to the San Francisco Chronicle last year: "It was certainly a good starting place, but it was absurd to reduce any particular group's history to one month of motivational speeches.".
Despite the controversy, Scott, of Howard University, says: "African-Americans have and will celebrate black history as long as they find their common identity important to themselves. … A good society is like a good marriage. You gotta work on it."
The bigger problem, according to many, is the American public's lack of knowledge of history overall. "Stop asking whether there's too much black history and start grappling with the fact that there's too little American history," Scott says.