Health & Medicine

Merlene Davis: Do we need Black History Month?

Filmmaker Shukree Hassan Tilghman stood in Times Square in New York City asking people to sign his petition to abolish Black History Month, in More Than a Month.
Filmmaker Shukree Hassan Tilghman stood in Times Square in New York City asking people to sign his petition to abolish Black History Month, in More Than a Month.

During the past few years, I've not been shy about my personal protest of Black History Month.

In my own casual research, I have found many interesting black history facts that aren't acknowledged in schools, because, I guess, it is much easier for students to rehash essays about the usual suspects: the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and Harriet Tubman.

While those legends are definitely worthy of study, they are not the only icons students should admire. But apparently there are not enough days in February to squeeze in other people or additional information in the curriculum.

So I was very interested in previewing More Than a Month, the next KET Community Cinema documentary about one man's efforts to end Black History Month.

Black filmmaker Shukree Hassan Tilghman crisscrossed the country for a year exploring the good and bad aspects of having a month dedicated to the history of black Americans.

Through humor and hard facts, Tilghman shows us how difficult it would be to end an observance that started in 1926 when Carter G. Woodson initiated Negro History Week.

Tilghman asked his parents, who are former social activists and public school teachers, whether they agreed with his premise.

His mother, Eleanor Vernice Siyon, said she would like to see black history mainstreamed, but she doubted schoolchildren would know of the contributions of blacks if the month disappeared. That's a legitimate concern.

In the film, Tilghman courageously dons a sandwich board on which "End Black History Month" is painted in bold lettering on the front, and "Black History is American History," is on the back. He stood in New York City's Times Square asking passersby to sign his petition.

After hours of trying, he had 47 signatures, which he admitted, was more than he had anticipated.

We must remember that Black History Month gained prominence because the history of black people was not being taught. And that is not good.

Lexington author Frank X Walker, who also has seen the film, said that as long as black history and other important histories are left out of American history, "we must continue to look for ways to remind young people of color that they are connected to a vibrant and rich history."

Plus, he said, learning about black history helps white students "have something to challenge the negative stereotypes that dominate mass media."

But is separating black history another form of segregation?

In the film, James Sidanius, a professor at Harvard University, said the separate month "exceptionalizes" black Americans by having teachers spend a brief period on black history and then return to "serious" American history.

But Tilghman notes that February is not the only month designated for the history of a minority. March is Women's History Month and Irish American Heritage Month. May is designated for the heritage of Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders and Jewish Americans. Those of Caribbean descent have June to look forward to, and October is a time to learn about the Polish and Italians. Hispanics have mid- September to mid-October, and November is dedicated to Native Americans.

And several Southern states celebrate Confederate History Month. One woman at a Confederate gathering Tilghman attended for the film said control over your own history is power, and history is about power.

In Philadelphia, Tilghman notes, completing a two-semester black history course is a mandatory graduation requirement, although one student wanted the interesting information she learned incorporated in the American history curriculum.

"Having Black History Month is fine," Tilghman said in the film. "Needing it is a problem."

I agree, but I also know we are not ready to blend the history of all minorities into U.s. history despite our claims of being a melting pot.

So, until we do, I'll highlight interesting black people from history during the other 11 months.