Around here, and in other places I’ve lived, Black History Month seems to be celebrated only with insincere soundbites; little text blurbs before commercials on television newscasts, short public service announcements, and so on. Almost all of these describe the accomplishments of inventors and … uhh, that’s about it, really.
George Washington Carver discovered three hundred uses for peanuts and hundreds more for soybeans, pecans and sweet potatoes. This has been a Black History Minute!
We hear about how Lewis Latimer invented the railroad passenger car toilet, and James King invented the washing machine, but not about the founding of Liberia, the Great Northern Migration or the origins of hip-hop music. Why does Black History Month seem to focus on recognizing inventors, and little else?
Yeah I’m in agreement. People can make contributions to our society without inventing things. (Music, literature, politics, etc…) I mean, inventions wind up playing important roles in our lives, but they’re usually not the kind of things that inspire deep thinking.
I dunno…I worked at A Major Retailer and they made a huge deal about Black History Month, including many details about people in government, music and other aspects of black contributions. I thought it was very well-rounded.
I’ve seen similar commendable examples of how to represent black people in a less trivial way, including very interesting histories of black people in pre-1945 Britain, which is something far too many people are completely unaware of. It’s not hard to do these things well, unfortunately the people in charge of the OP’s experience aren’t even trying half-heartedly.
I have a dream… Ok strike that I have a hope that one day we can just have history. As someone who is not black it seems like having a month for insincere blathering about peanuts and plasma is insulting. What it’s not important enough to teach in January or April? I thought segregation was over. Why do we segregate our history?
We’ve always segregated our history. There are historians who specialize in Ancient Egypt, Rome, Babylon, Sumer, English, etc. Black History is just another legitimate specialization of American History (not Afrocentrism).
Just like every other field. An astronomer who specializes in Mars isn’t likely to be doing work on active galactic nuclei as well. There’s just too much information for one person to be a specialist in all fields of astronomy or physics, and the same is true for history.
I suspect the inventors get top billing in Black History Month because they are uncontroversial, and have done something that most people can understand. Everybody understands (on a basic level) what an inventor does, and everybody knows what those things that they invented are.
Talking about something like the Great Northern Migration, on the other hand, is controversial and complex. To have any substantial discussion of it at all, you’d have to talk about segregation, sharecropping, lynch mobs, and other forms of discrimination that white people practiced against blacks.
The founding of Liberia is controversial, too- slavery, the idea that blacks would be better off with their own country separate from whites, and colonialism come into that. And that’s ignoring Liberia’s subsequent history, which includes a civil war and continuing unrest.
As noted, inventors are “good” people with no political baggage.
Beyond that, I suspect that one early emphasis on inventors was specific to the origins of the “history month”: there was always a lot of talk among those resisting Civil Rights that blacks were not capable of making intelligent contributions to society. Telling some person who could not identify Carl Sandburg or Robert Frost that Langston Hughes was a wonderful poet would tend to make little impression on that person, but everyone can recognize the value of the traffic light, the gas mask, or blood plasma (even when they do not even know what blood plasma is).
Once the trend was started, it has continued to the present, partially by inertia and partially because the original conditions have not changed all that much.
Do Egyptologists work one month out of the year? It’s different I am not talking about academic specialization. I’m talking about culturally separating black history from the rest of American history. It seems condescending to me. Of course academics will find their own niche. We are talking about 30 second tv spots about who invented the traffic light.
That doesn’t explain the examples given (of black inventors) and there is nothing relevant about Liberia to American History. Let’s acknowledge the elephant in the room. Black people are not well represented in American History because they were property for the first 90 years and then systematically prevented from participating in major events for the following 100 years.
When history is taught in schools it involves the broadest examples of major events and the people driving them. By the time you drill down to the 332nd squadron and Tuskegee Airmen you are in the human-interest category of history. They are not historically relevant beyond discussions of the civil rights movement. Their stories and accomplishments are interesting as hell, but they did not alter the course of history beyond that of the millions of other soldiers.
Black History Month is an affirmation of Black accomplishments, irrespective of historic interaction. That, IMO is why black inventors are used to fill the void left by slavery and apartheid.
There actually is no single inventor of the gas mask. Garrett Morgan, the same guy who invented the traffic light, developed a smoke-protection hood, but there were such things before him, as early as the late 1800s. It would be disingenuous to credit him, or any other person, with the device we now know as a gas mask.
(I had a fascination with gas masks as a kid. My best friend and I bought military surplus gas masks and wore them to school in 4th grade.)
Black History Month is about getting people to be aware that blacks have contributed to our history. It’s sort of like Breast Cancer Awareness Month- the idea is to get people to think about something they otherwise might not.
Unfortunately, the way history has often been taught in schools does tend to exclude blacks and women, because it focuses on political leaders, very few of whom were black or female until the latter half of the 20th century. Black History Month and Women’s History Month are attempts to correct for that bias in the way history is taught. Should more be done to get rid of that bias? Absolutely. But that’s harder than running 30 second TV spots about black inventors.
The George Washington Carver/ Peanut-butter factoid is probably the most repeated American history blurb of my life. It was interesting when I was 10, eating wonderbread PB&Js. It’s time to move along. I loved the OP here—very insightful.
The problem with BHM is that you get all these companies “celebrating” it with such transparent disingenousness that it almost becomes a “I have a lot of black friends” things on a national level. And it is a bit weird that music never seems to be mentioned in black history month when blacks in America are responsible for an overwhelming majority of modern innovation there.
Heh. Wasn’t it Aaron MacGruder who commented in his strip that as people look back on this time for black achievements, if they exclude hip-hop artists and badly behaved athletes, they will have to shorten it to the “Black History Afternoon?”
Honestly, I used to feel the same way you do. There was a time when the contributions of black Americans, hell their very existence, was ignored by many history textbooks and the general media at large. For example I had no idea growing up that there was such an animal as a black cowboy in the old west.
One of the reasons I felt as you did was because Black History month was so boring. There’s only so much I can hear about peanuts, traffic lights, and plasma before I get bored out of my mind. Fortunately, in recent years they’ve improved some of the programs shown during Black History Month. The History Channel has some pretty decent Black History “the more you know” type public announcements that go beyond inventors and touch upon authors, actors, working men, and civil rights activist.
Since I view black history as a legitimate field of study I don’t see having Black History Month as devisive. It’s just a sub-section of American history and pretty damn interesting. I’m working on a report about Black Codes following the Civil War and it’s damn fascinating stuff.
A little hijack here, but does anyone find it a bit tacky or even a bit racist that the cafeteria at my school is celebrating black history month with a buffet (Every Thursday is a themed buffet) featuring fried chicken, okra and grits?