More Than A Month premieres on PBS’s Independent Lens on Thursday, Feb. 16 at 10 pm
Why do we have Black History Month? That’s one question -- among many -- raised by More Than a Month, a documentary premiering on PBS’s Independent Lens on Thursday. It’s a trick question, really. And it prompts other trick questions. As the actor Morgan Freeman (not a fan of Black History Month) asks on a clip from “60 Minutes”: “Which month is white history month?” (All of them, is the answer many would be inclined to give.) Why do we relegate black history to one month of the year? Why does black history require its own month, and why don’t we have Native American History month, Jewish History Month, etc? (Actually we kind of do have those, but that’s a separate story.)
African American filmmaker Shukree Hassan Tilghman poses the questions to his parents (both activists), to historians, to business people, to people on the street -- white and black. He stands in Times Square with a sandwich board collecting signatures for a petition to end Black History Month. The film tries to play lightly with the serious subject, with mini skits showing the filmmaker’s fear that he’ll have his “black card taken away.” He travels around the country, visits some Civil War re-enactors, attempts with the help of Harvard professor Dr. James Sidanus a kind of (not very convincing) experiment to verify what he assumes to be the detrimental effect of teaching history the way we do. (He concludes that Black History Month neither helps nor harms our sense of history or our sense of self-worth.)
There are some sayings about history: those who don’t know it are condemned to repeat it; history is written by the victors, and nothing has really happened until it has been recorded. When talking about America, there’s the great Faulkner line: “the past isn’t dead, it isn’t even past.” Which is all a way of saying that we tend to underestimate the role past events have in shaping the present. In America, history and how it’s taught to school kids is a contentious subject. But, then again, you could pick any subject -- science, math, history, writing -- and safely say that the average American student sadly underperforms in it.
But black history is different. It’s less a matter of kids not learning what they’re taught and more one of textbooks not reflecting the scope of history. (Slavery was conveniently ignored or white-washed for years. African-American achievements were strangely unmentioned.) And black history is one key place where the the lofty ideals of American equality and liberty come smack against the ugly facts. Enslaved Africans were brought by force to America and their labor, in part, built this country. Within the African-American struggle for freedom and fairness one sees America’s struggle to live up to what it purports to be.
Those who don’t embrace Tilghman’s effort to end Black History Month resist because they fear that American history will suffer as a result. “I don’t have the confidence that anyone would say anything good about black people anymore,” says the filmmaker’s mother.
Tilghman offers the history behind Black History Month. It started out as Negro History Week, in 1926 when scholar and historian Carter Woodson, the son of slaves, pushed for a greater understanding of African-American history. Tilghman suggests that part of his beef with Black History Month is that it always focuses on the same four people -- Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and Frederick Douglass. Obviously there’s a lot more to African-American culture, history and heritage than that.
“Black history is American history,” as Morgan Freeman tells 60 minutes. Why try and cram and limit it to one month? And by the end of the movie -- not sure if this counts as a spoiler to alert you to, but -- Tilghman is no longer lobbying for an end to Black History Month, instead, taking a cue from the Philadelphia school system, he’s latched on to the interesting idea of making an African-American history competency a requirement for high school graduation.
“It’s not about ending black history month,” says the filmmaker. “It’s about transcending it.”
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