Kenneth Campbell on Black History Month

Each of the past few years, I have made presentations to youth groups celebrating African American history, particularly during the month of February, which we recognize as Black History Month. These groups include Scouts, mentoring programs, and church groups.

In each presentation, I make it a point to say that Black History is American History. If American History were taught as such, we would not need Black History Month or presentations. But, sadly, it isn’t.

How do I know? I ask them questions. I look in their books. I read their body language.

Second, I make it a point to say that Black History is much more than slavery and the great firsts such as inventors, athletes and entertainers, and it is more than Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and now President Barack Obama. It is also the contributions of the nameless and the voiceless; it is their spirit, their imagination, their vision, their hope.

Third, I make it a point to say Black History is not about blaming white people, a point that is increasingly important as the country’s multi-racial population grows. As Dr. King said in the “I Have a Dream Speech” in August 1963 on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in our nation’s capital, “many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.”

Fourth, I make it a point to say Black History is about understanding what Dr. King meant when he said in that speech, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” In fact, I have developed a separate presentation on that very observation to help them see the accomplishments of others like them in the context of personal development.

In one of my classes at the University of South Carolina, I sometimes spring a pop quiz of sorts on the students. It is just to get them to think; no grade is recorded. I ask students to write three facts from African American history. I then ask for three facts from American history. As with the children, the consistent answers for Black History – when there are answers – are slavery, Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King and now Barack Obama. Almost none of the students writes down the same thing for Black History and American History. We then discuss whether the media play a role in them seeing separate histories. No one says the reason is Black History Month, although some students have asked why is there a separate month for Black History. (Black historian Carter G. Woodson started Negro History Week in 1926 to recognize the accomplishments of Blacks, which were not being told.)

In a class a few years ago, students noticed a powerpoint on my desktop titled “Black History.” Some were curious and asked me to share it. I told them there was nothing in the powerpoint that I would not use in a class like theirs at USC.

I appreciated their interest, so I deviated from the scheduled presentation and showed the powerpoint, along the way having a conversation with them about the lack of these positive African American representations in the history they were taught and images and stories they have seen in mass media. Would race relations be better today, would our country be more united, if we knew and therefore could appreciate the contributions of all? If we knew our inclusive history, perhaps we could appreciate the potential of all.

Cynthia Tucker, one of my favorite columnists who writes for the Atlanta Constitution, has campaigned for the elimination of Black History Month for years, calling the observance outdated. Tucker, who is African American, focuses much of her argument on the idea that Black History will be taught primarily during Black History Month as long as the month exists; however, it seems more likely to me that the emphasis in February reminds us of the importance of Black History and the need to spread it throughout the other months.

Tucker and I agree that Black History is American History. And we agree that Black History needs to be taught as a part of the American story on a daily basis, not just in February. From my perspective, we are not there yet, whether we are talking about the familiar names and events, or the “Hidden Figures” who do not rise to the level of Parks, King and Obama, but deserve recognition because they, too, are a significant part of American history–the history of us all.

As long as the children’s faces light up with curiosity and their body language suggests increased self-esteem when I talk about Black History as a part of American history, I will continue to appreciate Black History Month.

Kenneth Campbell, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of South Carolina. He is chairman of the Media and Civil Rights History Symposium, which will be held at the School on March 30-April 1, 2017.

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