Black History Month enriches the culture of American society

Andrew Fergin

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America has frequently painted itself as a melting pot nation, a place in which cultures can coexist and contribute to a whole that is all the grander for its rich diversity. In this vein Black History Month is a derivative of the melting pot ideal. By celebrating African history and (more modernly) culture we take the time to delve deeply into topics that (while not under-appreciated) are normally only skimmed and become richer for it.

Given how interwoven African American history is with America’s own history it is hardly a stretch to say understanding one will grant a more intimate understanding of the other. By the time they enter second grade most children will have heard the name Martin Luther King Jr. yet ask even an adult who James Van Der Zee (a prominent figure in the Harlem Renaissance) was and it is unlikely they will respond with more than a blank stare.

This is not to say that the only time a person should learn about African American history is during Black History Month. However, for most people studying African American history is simply not a part of their daily routine and so Black History Month serves an important function in that it draws in outsiders and teaches them that the history of African Americans extends beyond that Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream or that Rosa Parks refused to change seats on a bus.

A frequently argued detraction to Black History Month is that it elevates African American history above the histories of other American cultures such as Irish Americans or Japanese Americans to name examples. Rather than discarding Black History Month however, a far more constructive course of action would be to elevate the teaching of all cultural histories to the same level as African American history.

More prominently than any other reason however, Black History Month is important because it is a stark reminder of how far America as a society has come. It is easy to say that the days of slavery and great racism are behind us. But while it is true slavery is unlikely to ever return, the great racism associated with the time of slavery is still looming. Look at the alienation of Mexicans after the issue of illegal immigration inflated, look at how paranoid of Islam and Muslims Americans became after 9-11, even look at how we treat homosexuals in the present. We as a society have shown that with the right trigger we can easily fall back in to old and intolerant patterns. For this reason Black History Month is critical because it serves as a metaphorical beacon of the past, signaling to us how far we have progressed as a society and from how dark a place we come, with the hope that we don’t repeat our past mistakes.

It’s true that Black History Month is somewhat overshadowed these days. Between Valentine’s Day and spring classes picking up momentum February is a busy time for most people. But this doesn’t mean Black History Month is any less important than it was when it first came into being. As Americans it is not just the presence of our cultures that makes us rich as a people, it is the fact that we celebrate all of these different cultures and Black History Month is no exception.