Beyond tokenism: The debate around Black History Month

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"I don't want a black history month. Black history is American history," says Morgan Freeman. 

This month, you will see no shortage of functions organized by historical societies, libraries and schools. You may even catch the corporate giants sponsoring short vignettes on black history, or perhaps a rerun of Amistad, Roots or Malcolm X. 

It's Black History Month. 

The celebration has come a long way since 1926, when Harvard-educated Carter G. Woodson founded Negro History Week. Woodson, popularly known as "the father of black history," chose the second week in February to correspond with Abraham Lincoln’s approval of America's 13th Amendment to its Constitution, abolishing slavery, and also with the birth of prominent black advocate Frederick Douglass. 

Woodson's goal was not only to educate his own community about its rich heritage, but also to make American society aware of black contributions. In 1976, during the U.S. bicentennial, the commemoration week was expanded in the U.S. to National Black History Month. 

The now-defunct Canadian Negro Women's Association first marked the month in Toronto in 1950. The city formally recognized February as Black History Month in 1978 after being petitioned by the Ontario Black History Society . The event was first officially proclaimed in Ontario in 1993 to mark the 200th anniversary of legislation introduced by lieutenant-governor John Graves Simcoe to prohibit the importation of slaves into what was then Upper Canada. 

The celebrations are supposed to make a difference in the perceptions and attitudes of blacks and whites. Yet, since its inception, there has been a raging debate both within and outside the community on whether the month has had a positive or negative effect. 

Many people look forward to this month, during which a marginalized people's history is given prominence in the mainstream. There is a new-found appetite for anything about black history during these magical 28 days. 

Others question its relevance and consequences. As Freeman points out, is black history not part of Canadian, American or world history? Why should it be condensed and highlighted only during this month? Indeed, some with conspiracy theory leanings even wonder out loud why the shortest month of the year was selected. 

During our school years, we spend months, perhaps even years studying history. Yet how much importance is given to the history of blacks? On far too many school curricula, outside of this month, black history shows up once just before the U.S. Civil War, disappears and then reappears with the civil rights movement. 

Even a cursory glance at the tremendous contributions of the black community is beyond the scope of this article. Suffice it to note that the accomplishments and contributions by this community have benefited all of us, not just members of one group.

Minorities, and indeed all of us, owe a great deal of gratitude for the great civil rights strides advanced by the blood and sweat of blacks. Immigrants to Canada, for instance, owe a great debt of gratitude to William P. Hubbard . Hubbard, elected as the first black politician in Toronto in 1894, won another 13 consecutive annual elections as alderman in Ward 4. He fought for cheap hydro power, and stood up for Chinese laundry owners being forced out by rich, white laundry owners. 

It's not hard to understand the pride felt in having one's history and contributions remembered and honoured. "We need such a month to help us arrive at an understanding of our ourselves as Canadian," says Rosemary Sadlier, president of the Ontario Black History Society. Yet others question whether, in our increasingly multiracial and multi-ethnic societies today, it make sense to commemorate the history of only one particular people in a discrete and isolated fashion? 

Should the history of all peoples not be celebrated and taught all year round. And by limiting the remembrance, study, and celebration to one month, are we not undermining and devaluing it? 

Don't get me wrong. It's good that there is a month dedicated to acknowledge the achievements and contributions of blacks. Some time to remember is better than none at all. As Woodson wrote: "The achievements of the Negro properly set forth will crown him as a factor in early human progress and a maker of modern civilization." 

But this is just a first step. The whiff of patronization and complacency is too strong during this month. Some blacks sit back with a sense of pride, while the rest of us feel good for allowing "their" history to be told and recognized. 

The celebrations have been going on for more than eight decades, and yet the cycle of racism has been remarkably consistent over that period. As Professor Tyrone Williams notes, "whatever ameliorating effects black history month was supposed to have had, the fact remains that it has failed to have any lasting impact on race relations in the United States."

Agree or disagree with Williams and Morgan, suffice it to state that until the contributions of minority groups are the focal points of history books rather than footnotes, Black History Month and other such remembrances will remain necessary. 

Faisal Kutty, a lawyer, teaches at Valparaiso University School of Law in Indiana and Osgoode Hall Law School of York University. Follow him at Twitter @FaisalKutty

This article was originally published in the Toronto Star and is reprinted here with permission. 

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