ATLANTA — They were born long after the Jim Crow laws that officially divided American society were banished to history’s dustbin. Their lives began more than 20 years after Martin Luther King was assassinated, and just 20 years before the nation elected the first black president.
They are African-American 20-somethings, members of the so-called post-racial era that began with President Obama’s election, whose lives have been lived largely free of overt racism.
For many of them, the very notion of Black History Month is a trite anachronism. It’s a time given over to rote recitations of a few well-known factoids about the lives of King, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, maybe a few others.
But how much resonance can such recitations have for people who had the option of voting for a black candidate in their very first presidential election? A candidate who won? Twice?
How valuable, knowledge-wise, is a single month for youth who have practically the whole of human knowledge at their fingertips on their phones?
Furthermore, these African-American Millennials say they never really learned anything useful during Black History Month activities at school, and they fret that having a formal, month-long observance gives the nation a pass to ignore black history the rest of the year.
Despite all that, they’d keep it.
“I think setting aside a special month takes away from the fact that we should be acknowledging black people all throughout the year; there is no white history month,” says Geddes Lezama, 24, an associate television producer at Sirens Media in Silver Spring, Md. “But I do think it is a positive thing.”
Like others, Lezama says she learned most of the black history she knows from her parents and from seeking it out on her own. “We get a lot from our parents, but white people don’t get (black history) from their family,” she says. “I feel it’s most beneficial in that way, that it’s a time for white people to learn black history, because they don’t learn it on their own.”
Questions about the viability of Black History Month aren’t new, says Daryl Michael Scott, president of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, founded in 1915 by Carter G. Woodson. Woodson is credited with establishing a Black History Week in 1926 to coincide with birthday celebrations of Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. Black History Month has been observed, with annual proclamations from the federal government, since 1976.
Debating its continued relevance “is a cottage industry,” Scott says.
The debate was ratcheted up with the 2012 release of filmmaker Shukree Hassan Tilghman’s PBS documentary, More Than a Month, which argued for ending Black History Month and simply teaching African-American history as history.
Tilghman declined a request for an interview. “Unfortunately, I’ve all but retired from talking about Black History Month. I got tired, man,” he said in an e-mail.
He said in an earlier statement that “being the face associated with ending Black History Month is a peculiar burden.” His film was meant to “empower the history of Africans in America by suggesting that needing a history month is not a position of empowerment and to challenge all of us to be vigilant about the American story and how we tell it.”
But Scott says there’s a compelling reason to keep the February observance: “You need a Black History Month because it’s getting to be the case that it’s the only American history you’re going to get in this society,” he says. “Those opposed to Black History Month are condemning black history to be as forgotten as American history in general. Increasingly in our schools, American history is being pushed aside by teachers who are being forced to teach to the test on issues of math and science.”
Marcus Stephens, 23, a senior at Georgia Regents University in Augusta, says Black History Month “is a good thing,” although he got only a “surface understanding” of African-American history during February observances.
“We learn about Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, but we don’t learn about (the self-taught astronomer and surveyor) Benjamin Banneker or ancient Egypt,” he says. “But it’s our job to teach ourselves that. It’s for black parents to teach black children, and for adults to go and teach ourselves.”
Ernest Cowan, 25, who graduated from Howard University in 2011 and is now a background investigator with Washington, D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department, says he got a true understanding of black history when he spent a month in Egypt.
“It opened my eyes to how we are as a people and how everyone is connected to the black diaspora in some type of way,” Cowan says.
“I don’t see a problem with Black History Month, but it needs to be understood that African-American history is bigger than just a month,” he says. “It’s more than just Martin Luther King Jr. and the handful of other well-known figures that we learn about during February. We have to study it on our own, seek it out on our own.”
Aaron Watkins, 22, a senior at the University of Maryland, says, “The thought of Black History Month is a good idea. In … practice, I think it’s kind of outdated. I see black history as American history. It can’t simply be relegated to a month because it’s too woven into the fabric of American history.”
“I don’t think we’re ready to do away with it yet,” Watkins says, “but I hope in the next 10 years or so, it can be a thing of the past, because teachers will be adequately teaching black history in American public schools.”