John McWhorter: Black History Month Is Over — Very Over

Source: The Root/NPR, 3-1-11

…The sheer below-the-radar obscurity of these things is their value, as well as the fact that in any given year, there are countless similar phenomena going on. They show that an awareness of black history has penetrated our national consciousness in a way that would have pleased Carter G. Woodson, who inaugurated Negro History Week in 1926. They go on and on: In 2004, white historian Eric Rauchway wrote a book about that Buffalo Exposition, quite unconnected from the aforementioned commemoration planners, memorably highlighting the black man who made a valiant effort to rescue President William McKinley from an assassin’s bullet.

And a larger turn of events tells the same story. After all, we now have a National Museum of African American History and Culture — which will have its own location on the Mall in Washington, D.C., by 2015. Surely that, along with the funding it has been granted and the considerable national publicity it attracts, indicates some uptick in acceptance that black history is part of American history.

Or what about the Pulitzer that Isabel Wilkerson’s chronicle of the Great Migration, The Warmth of Other Suns, will likely get? Also, imagine telling, say, Stokely Carmichael in 1967 that in 2010, a book about the harvesting of a black woman’s cancer cells (Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks) would be as ecstatically received as Wilkerson’s and be made into a film?

The days when black history could be described as marginalized in American life are now, themselves, history. Yet somehow we hold on to a delicate contradiction under which all of the things I have mentioned and so much more are true, but we say that America is still “insufficiently aware of” black history. Isn’t it really just that we’re used to Black History Month, the way we’re used to an old armchair? It’s no longer that we think it’s accomplishing anything. It’s just, in our minds, supposed to be there because it always has been.

It is often charged that a writer chooses a stance like this one out of a recreational quest to be “controversial.” Maybe some do, but that’s not where this is coming from. Writing, for me, is not a matter of sitting down and working up ways to make people angry. I simply write what I feel, with a suspicion that I am not alone, and I almost never am.

Black History Month has accomplished what it was established to do, and part of acknowledging that is to let it go — with a spirit of joy and victory. Do I think it’s an issue of code-red importance that every February we pretend that America learns anything serious about black history? Of course not. But since about 1995, what Black History Month has reminded me every year is that the battle it was designed for has been won. Maybe we can think of it as a month celebrating America‘s having come to celebrate black history.

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