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Celebrate the power in history
Omar H. Ali's op-ed on Black History Month, and the African Disapora

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Date published: 2/17/2013


--In 1976, the federal government officially recognized February as Black History Month. It was the product of political demands made by Black Power student activists starting in 1969 to expand Negro History Week, which had been launched some 40 years earlier by historian Carter G. Woodson.

Although recognized nationally, the celebratory month remains controversial, with the concept of "black history" often being the source of denigration if not outright ridicule.

Among the most public of Black History Month detractors is none other than award-winning actor Morgan Freeman. Years ago, Freeman raised eyebrows when he responded by saying "Ridiculous!" when asked for his thoughts about Black History Month during a CBS "60 Minutes" interview. Freeman then asked his interviewer, "Which month is white history month?" concluding, "I don't want a black history month. Black history is American history."

While I agree with the spirit of Freeman's statement, "black history" (as an academic field and in popular imagination) is not yet "American history." The former continues to be taught as a subfield of American history--as is women's history, celebrated in March--and reinforced through Black History Month as something separate, something apart.

When I recently asked one of my large college survey courses if they agreed with Freeman after showing them a clip of his comments on YouTube, only three of the 70 students in the class (predominantly African-American) disagreed with him. That is, upward of 95 percent of the class agreed with Freeman.

For most of this new generation of college students, Black History Month is simply seen as less than relevant. Indeed, the iconic figures presented during the month of February--Harriet Tubman ("Underground Railroad"), George Washington Carver ("the peanut guy"), Rosa Parks ("the lady who sat down on the bus"), and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. ("I Have a Dream" speech)--seem to mean or do little for the latest generation (and increasingly, I suspect, for most Americans).

Contrary to the intentions of those who pressed for the creation of a "Negro Week," then month, to shine a brighter light on the lives, struggles, and contributions of so many African-Americans, "Black History" has been largely rendered lifeless, something of the distant past, not viewed as connected to today.


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Omar H. Ali is an associate professor of African-American history at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro and a Road Scholar for the North Carolina Humanities Council.