Does Black History Month actually separate us as Americans, as Oscar-winning actor Morgan Freeman seems to fear it does? Not if it’s done right.
Mr. Freeman called the annual observance “ridiculous” on CBS’ “60 Minutes” last Sunday, visibly surprising interviewer Mike Wallace.
“You’re going to relegate my history to a month?” Mr. Freeman elaborated. “I don’t want a black history month. Black history is American history.”
Mr. Freeman’s pronouncement made news, coming as it did from the celebrated 68-year-old who, among other career honors, walked away with an Oscar for playing Eddie “Scrap-Iron” Dupris in “Million Dollar Baby.”
He made big news beyond CBS, though Mr. Freeman is hardly the first African-American to register a gripe about Black History Month. An uncle of mine, for example, used to complain for years: “Why do we get the shortest month?”
Why, indeed? It was Carter G. Woodson, a great black historian educated at Harvard and the University of Chicago, who initiated Black History Month as “Negro History Week” in 1926. I hear he used to complain about it, too. He hoped the event would eventually put itself out of business by promoting the respectful integration of black history with everyone else’s history. In many ways, black history studies have made a lot of progress since then. In many other ways, we’re still waiting.
Woodson chose the second week in February so the big week would coincide with the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. If Douglass, who escaped slavery to become a pioneer journalist, author, diplomat and Lincoln adviser, were anywhere nearly as well integrated into American history studies as Lincoln, Black History Month wouldn’t be needed.
Mr. Freeman seemed to sense that as he toyed with Mr. Wallace: “Which month is White History Month?” he asked Mr. Wallace, who looked befuddled. Had Mr. Freeman asked me, I would have spoken right up: “Every month.”
But, thank you, Brother Morgan, for reminding us black Americans are a diverse people. Many of us feel our history has been marginalized. So do many women, Latinos, Asians, Native Americans and homosexuals and lesbians, who also hold commemorative months of their own. If I’m leaving anyone’s group out, forgive me, but it’s hard to keep up.
When Mr. Wallace started to ask, “How are we going to get rid of racism” without Black History Month, Mr. Freeman cut in: “Stop talking about it. I am going to stop calling you a white man, and I’m going to ask you to stop calling me a black man. I know you as Mike Wallace. You know me as Morgan Freeman. You wouldn’t say, ‘Well, I know this white guy named Mike Wallace.’ You know what I’m saying?”
Not quite. How, I would ask, are we going to solve a problem unless we talk about it? The French tried that. They swept their race problems under “le tapis” (the rug) in the spirit of “liberty, equality, fraternity.” They refused, as a matter of French law, to recognize racial differences, which made it hard, if not impossible, for the law to deal with racial discrimination. Decades of longstanding racial and ethnic grievances led to the recent uprisings by poor, largely unemployed Arab and African youths in towns across France.
Back here in the good ol’ U.S.A., I have often thought African-Americans would have preferred to be “just American” from the time the first 20 arrived in Jamestown Colony in 1619, but that choice never really was given us.
Instead, we add our own cultural flavor to the great American gumbo alongside innumerable other ethnic and racial groups. From St. Patrick’s Day to Cinco de Mayo to Columbus Day and beyond, we’re all “just American” except for one day when we allow our ethnic identity, whatever it may be, to express itself.
We Americans need not run from our own racial past. It is very much a part of our turbulent history, from the great debate the Framers of the Constitution staged over how to count the slaves for purposes of reapportionment (“two-thirds of a person”) to today’s first black female secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice.
The bad old days of separatism tried to erase black folks from American history. Black History Month puts us back in.
It is not “ridiculous” to study the tragedies and triumphs of the many people who made this country what it is. They have much to teach us. We need Black History Month. We don’t need to limit it to blacks only — or to a month.
Clarence Page is a nationally syndicated columnist.