Current Implications of Black History Month – by Marc Brenman

In 1926, Dr. Carter Godwin Woodson, an African-American historian, writer, and educator, created Negro History Week to honor the contributions of people of African descent in the U.S. He founded the Association for the Study of Negro (now African-American) Life and History in 1915 and the Journal of Negro History in 1916. Born in 1875 to former enslaved people in New Canton, Virginia, the Harvard-educated Woodson chose February for Negro History Week because the birthdays of abolitionist Frederick Douglass and President Abraham Lincoln fall then. He wrote, “What we need is not a history of selected races or nations, but the history of the world void of national bias, race, hate, and religious prejudice.” Dr. Woodson contributed to our understanding that a better knowledge of history is critical for people in the African diaspora to achieve greater pride, self-determination and collective progress.  Negro History Week itself changed. About fifty years later, near the close of the Black Power period (early 1970s), the celebration was renamed Black History Week and later expanded to Black History Month in 1976.

The month is not without controversy. A common joke among African-Americans is that their celebration got saddled with the shortest month. Organizations frequently issue pronouncements and sponsor African-American speakers and potlucks. Nevertheless, social and economic progress for African-Americans is going backwards according to many criteria, under economic pressure, rightwing political pressure, and odd decisions by a conservative federal judiciary. 

One of the controversies is the decision by the Florida department of education not to adopt a pilot Advanced Placement course in African-American studies. The College Board has developed this course, its first one on a specific racial or ethnic group. There have also been requests that it develop an Ethnic Studies AP course. The Florida state government believes that the course runs afoul of its rules about not teaching critical race theory or any content that might make white students feel bad. Governor DeSantis said the course indoctrinates students to a political agenda. State officials have taken issue with the possibility that the course will teach about Black Lives Matter, the reparations movement, intersectionality, “queer theory,” Black feminism, and abolishing prisons. In 2022, Gov. DeSantis signed the “Stop WOKE” Act, which sets limits on how race is permitted to be taught in classrooms. Gov. DeSantis claims that the State requires the teaching of Black history. 

The exact content of the course is not known to the public. There is a threatened lawsuit by three Black students against the course ban. It isn’t known what the basis for this suit would be. The NAACP denounced Florida’s decision as “whitesplaining.” In 2017, a federal district judge found that Arizona could not enforce a 2010 law that banned a Mexican-American studies program in Tucson schools. He had determined the law was unconstitutional and that officials who proposed it had been motivated by racial animus, in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution.

AP courses help high school students get into prestigious colleges. Allegedly they help build critical thinking skills. They have been criticized in the past because they are more commonly found in wealthier, whiter, high schools. After Florida rejected the course, the College Board announced that it will be releasing a newly revised version of the course on Feb. 1, the first day of Black History Month. Again, the revised contents are not publicly known. It seems odd that the College Board would revise the course while it is still in the pilot testing phase with 60 high schools. 

An AP African-American studies course could conceivably help some Black students with prestigious college admissions. However, a student who takes AP courses is usually already on a high level college admissions track. At the same time that the College Board is piloting this new AP course, its Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) is in declining use by colleges and universities. The gatekeeper function appears not to help increase educational opportunity for Black students. A study a number of years ago found that most high school history textbooks only mentioned the civil rights movement in the form of a paragraph about Martin Luther King. 

The issue is also in the context of the current effort in California, Washington State, and a few other states to introduce ethnic studies as a graduate requirement. The still larger context is the fact of large declines in student achievement and attendance due to the Covid pandemic. If students are failing in basic academic skills and aren’t even in school, what good are sophisticated in-school programs that stray from basic academics? How important is it to study one’s own group? Does education contribute to social justice? A case can be made that it does not. For example, even after 60 years of Holocaust education, antisemitism is growing in the US.  

Another large controversy that overtakes Black History Month is that over reparations. These discussions propose paying African-Americans for the injuries their ancestors suffered during slavery. Some reparations proposals include recompense for more recent and current inequities and discrimination. Some reparations discussions are fairly far advanced, such as in California, even though California was never a slave state. The concept has been extended to include all forms of discrimination after slavery. But not a single reparations discussion includes the concept that perhaps benefits should be deducted from reparations payments. For example, Reconstruction, equal employment opportunity programs, civil rights laws and their enforcement agencies, desegregation programs, busing, magnet schools, affirmative action programs, diversity programs, minority business enterprise programs, the War on Poverty, STEM education, aid to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), school breakfast and lunch programs, and other services and benefit programs aimed at helping African-Americans. 

Should students be made to feel bad about what their ancestors may or may not have done? For example, we don’t typically blame young people in Germany for the sins of the Nazis. How do we justify blaming young white people for slavery in the US, which ended in 1865? Some advocates sincerely believe that slavery is not over in the US, finding it in “mass incarceration.” Big questions are raised about how much the past should consume us. Is the College Board simply being politically correct in developing an AP African-American studies course? What is its utility? Since K-12 education is a zero sum game where adding one element to the curriculum means taking something else away, is diverting the attention of very bright African-American students to yet another AP course a fruitful use of time, energy, and effort? You can bet that extremely few non-Black students will sign up for the course, given all the other demands on their time. Will the course help correct declining African-American social and economic mobility? One could say that attending a few speeches for Black History Month is a positive and celebratory use of time, but AP courses are notoriously difficult and time-consuming. 

Marc Brenman

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