Debate on Black History Month

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Black History Month has been officially recognized since 1976, when President Gerald Ford issued a statement that he wanted to honor the accomplishments of African-Americans.  Although Ford is credited with implementing the month of February to remember their contributions to history, Carter G. Woodson, an African-American who earned his Ph.D. at Harvard in 1912, is given credit for initiating Black History Month.

Woodson, who was forced to work in a Kentucky coal mine because he couldn’t attend school as a child, eventually taught himself and enrolled in Douglass High School, earning his diploma in under two years.  In college, he was one of the first scholars to study African-American history, and he founded the Association for the Study of African-American Life and History.  In 1926, Woodson began the celebration of “Negro History Week” in the second week of February, which was sponsored by the association he founded.

Rutgers Professor Wayne Glasker, who authored several articles for the Encyclopedia of Harlem Renaissance, spoke at a lecture about Black History Month at Rutgers-Camden earlier this month.  He said “white supremacy worshipped Europe and worshipped whiteness.”  He stated that blacks were completely excluded from history and encyclopedias.  Blacks were ignored, demeaned and devalued.  “The history of black people had been ‘whited out’.”  He said that educators need to do more in grades kindergarten through high school to make students aware of the contributions of African-Americans.  Glasker went on to point out that Henry Sampson, the first black American to earn a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering, invented the gamma electric cell, calling Sampson the “pioneer who made the cell phone possible.”  He also noted the accomplishments of Dr. Charles Drew (who invented the blood bank), Garrett Morgan (traffic light and gas mask), and Louis Latimer (carbon filament in light bulbs).  Most people have no idea of these contributions to society and technology, and these should be taught in schools, Gasker claims.

Alexis Lanza, a junior high school teacher of culturally diverse students for 12 years in Bristol Township, PA, said that she regards Black History Month as a “slap in the face to those it is meant to celebrate.”  She stated that the history curriculum is so skewed that only European Americans are featured in textbooks, and that teachers should “discuss every human being who contributed to the history of our country and our world whenever [they]are discussing that period.”  Lanza said that she should be able to teach about Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and Martin Luther King, Jr. within the context of their period in history.  She shouldn’t have to take a detour if she is teaching a unit about the American Revolution in February to discuss the contributions of African-Americans, she said.

Brooke Donegan, a junior at Rutgers-Camden who attended Glasker’s lecture, also said that she had never learned about black history in-depth before.  “I am convinced that this is a problem in our current curriculums.  It is 2014.  Can we learn about all ethnicities now?” she said.

Glasker concluded his presentation by reiterating that both black and white students need to learn about African-Americans throughout history, and he claims that only 17% of black Americans have a B.A. or higher.  He stressed the importance of continued educational progress and that “people need to know that there is more to Black History Month than ‘George Washington Carver invented peanut butter’.”  Citing the famous orator and civil-rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Glasker said, “No lie can live forever.”

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