To feel that there is something tired in the idea of Black History Month these days is not, despite what one might hear from some quarters, racist.
When Carter G. Woodson founded Negro History Week in 1926 he openly hoped that the very need for such a celebration would gradually recede. For the week to morph into a month did not exactly bear out his wishes, and today even black people brandish an array of objections to Black History Month.
Morgan Freeman wonders why the history of his people must be relegated to a single month. Others more recreationally inclined consider it suspicious that February is the shortest month.
All of this is part of the general eye-rolling response Black History Month elicits from more than a few blacks as well as everyone else.
Is it perhaps time to let it go? The issue is not whether black history is important. It is whether America still needs to be reminded of that fact.
What would an America sufficiently aware of black history look like?
Suppose, say, the organizers of a centennial celebration of the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo decided to highlight the racially discriminatory side of the event. Or suppose a travelling museum exhibit of slave ship artifacts gets the highest attendance ever recorded in twenty cities.
Both have happened, both suggest an America that “gets” black history -- and both occurred ten years ago at this writing.
Just a year later, Washington State Rep. Hans Dunshee, white, agitated to have Jefferson Davis’ name removed from a Seattle highway and replaced with the name of William P. Stewart, a black Civil War veteran of the state.
Meanwhile, white Underground Railroad buffs in Ohio were the most vocal critics of historical distortions in a planned Cincinnati National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, while down in Mississippi a white man turned up with a huge collection of slavery artifacts. And he wasn’t even a scholar.
So, this is modern America, where things like this are ordinary: I chose among countless possibilities, and just for those two years. If this is not an America ready to heed Carter G. Woodson’s advice, then what would be?
How about fast-forwarding to last year? Isabel Wilkerson’s chronicle of the Great Migration, “The Warmth of Other Suns,” was one of the most ecstatically received books of the year and will likely win a Pulitzer.
One of the other most popular books of the same year was Rebecca Skloot’s chronicle of the harvesting of the cancer cells of Henrietta Lacks, which will soon be an HBO film. On Broadway, the hit musical “Memphis” depicts the rise of rock and roll amidst the violent response to an interracial romance. A musical about the injustice perpetrated in the 1930s upon the Scottsboro Boys was brought from Off-Broadway to the Great White Way itself despite highly mixed reviews, because its creators and backers - white, recall - thought it too important a statement not to be more widely seen.
And we also live in an era when history textbooks are dedicated to chronicling slavery to such an extent that critics decry the decrease in space devoted to other aspects of history, and when university leaders consider it more important that an undergraduate know what institutional racism is than what the Munich Agreement was.
All of this is why a month dedicated to black history now feels like a month dedicated to seatbelts. Both are now part of the fabric of American life, with black history almost as insistent upon any wakeful person’s attention as the pinging sound in a car when you don’t buckle up.
It can be strangely hard to admit that a battle has been won. But especially considering that the typical white person is not exactly a walking encyclopedia of “white” history, it’s time to admit that America knows its black history as well as anyone has reason to wish it to.
This piece originally appeared in Washington Examiner