Historian and scholar Carter G. Woodson created Negro History Week in 1926, against the backdrop of Jim Crow America. A half-century later, it would become Black History Month when President Gerald Ford officially recognized it in 1976.
Woodson wanted Negro History Week to help correct a national narrative that barely included African Americans and allowed errors and blatantly racist perspectives to stand uncorrected. It was a time of great change for black people: Just 50 years removed from slavery, racial “uplift” dominated discourse and media and African Americans struggled to find a place in the country.
It was also the early days of cinema, 11 years after the release of D.W. Griffith’s racially incendiary “The Birth of a Nation” (1915), and a year before the first talkie, “The Jazz Singer” (1927), which featured Al Jolson in blackface. Meanwhile, the career of black cinema pioneer Oscar Micheaux was on the rise, as he and other black filmmakers, actors, and actresses countered Hollywood’s ugly racial stereotypes with their own images, representing true black life at the time.
As part of a larger effort to be fully integrated into American society, Woodson’s Negro History Week challenged how black people were seen and portrayed. A century later, two things are true: It’s unclear where exactly Black History Month fits into that struggle, and the cinematic medium has failed to capture the vast breadth of experiences of black people in America and around the world. Black historical stories are restricted to certain parameters — not unlike assigning a month to celebrate black history.
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Detractors argue that Black History Month has been usurped by corporations that make token efforts only to further their capitalist agenda within the black community. In that light, it is an anachronism that props up the segregation it was intended to counteract. Champions argue that in a country where European history still dominates, Black History Month is needed to celebrate and recognize the achievements of black Americans.
Surprise! Black Americans are not a monolithic group, and the success of Black History Month demands that it recognize the heterogeneity not only in the black community, but also in black narratives. Black stories continue to be ghettoized in the mainstream, a problem that mirrors the idea of Black History Month: arbitrary separation from American history.
If a film is a historical drama with a primarily black casts, it’s probably set in one of three specific periods: The start of the transatlantic slave trade through the Emancipation Proclamation; Jim Crow America; or the civil rights era. It favors the same few historical figures taught in typical American classrooms: Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, former President Barack Obama. While those lives are undoubtedly worthy of study, they do not exist in a vacuum.
The full breadth of the historical black experience needs to be explored. That’s impossible in the span of a month, and therein lies the main problem with Black History Month. The African American narrative also needs to be fully woven into African history, and vice-versa. That would broaden the scope of stories that are shared across generations, and inspire storytellers.
Americans would learn of the empires, kingdoms, and dynasties that ruled the pre-colonial continent, centuries before the so-called “Scramble for Africa” in the late 1800s. Each came with its own social hierarchies, gods, religions, wars of conquest, mythologies and much more, enough to satisfy any rabid “Game of Thrones” fan.
Actor Michael B. Jordan gets it. He has said several times that he wants to produce the story of the Mali Empire’s Emperor Mansa Musa (c. 1280–c. 1337), who was believed to have been the one of the richest people who ever lived and the world’s largest producer of gold.
So any concerns about “narrative exhaustion,” as Paul Schrader put it a decade ago, are entirely unfounded. From the lens through which he sees the world — as a white, heterosexual male — of course it feels like every possible story has been told, because that’s been Hollywood’s only narrative.
For people of color, women and other historically underrepresented groups, there’s still plenty of catching up to do. For producers seeking the ever-elusive IP, untapped black history is an extraordinary opportunity. And Black History Month could serve as a guidepost for these kinds of stories, not an antiquarian history for history’s sake.
There has been tremendous racial progress over the course of the nation’s history, but it’s not clear that Black History Month made any measurable lasting impact on race relations in the US, as Woodson originally intended. Nor has it succeeded in mainstreaming African American values, customs, and achievements.
As it exists today, Black History Month is not much more than a pageant that serves as a kind of checkbox, proving inclusion of the African American narrative. It creates a kind of optical illusion: As a month-long signifier it gives a sense of change, but instead delivers cultural endorphins that divert and dilute the energy needed for real progress.
A similar kind of incrementalism plagues advancements in diversity in the film industry, both in front of and behind the camera as well as in executive suites, among film critics, and in the Academy. Each is still a long way from reflecting the general population, which contains 40 percent people of color. (To be fair, the collective impact of recent policy shifts and initiatives may not be felt in their entirety for years to come.)
These are the changes that can have a real impact on the films and TV shows that are made, and the stories that will be told. So instead of snubbing Black History Month, maybe what is needed is a reassessment. It’s not that it’s unnecessary but, as with so many conversations about race, it has not moved beyond its initial parameters.
In some ways, the fates of Black History Month and of black stories in Hollywood might be intertwined. Both need nurturing and imagination. So America has a choice: either rekindle the fire that burned in Woodson when he created Negro History Week in 1926 and retrofit the celebration to make it more temporally pertinent — or maintain the status quo, and watch Black History Month continue to exist as nothing more than the cultural placebo it currently is, as its relevance gradually fades over time.
That would be unfortunate, because a fine-tuned Black History Month could offer so much more. For that to happen, there needs to be a concerted effort to make the month more effective and productive – perhaps by utilizing the attention it attracts to foreground untapped black stories that would fascinate and inspire storytellers.