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Black history is more than one month, but February matters

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

There's an ongoing debate about Black History Month. Does it uplift Black stories or does it segregate history? NPR's Sandhya Dirks reports while Black history is more than a month, February still matters, especially now.

SANDHYA DIRKS, BYLINE: When did you first learn about Black history? Was it at home from your parents?

KARSONYA WISE WHITEHEAD: I mean, we celebrated Black history every single day of the year.

DIRKS: Or maybe at church.

HASAN KWAME JEFFRIES: I mean, I was getting more about Black History Month in the Black church than I was in my majority Black school.

DIRKS: That's Hasan Kwame Jeffries...

JEFFRIES: Associate professor of history in the department of history at The Ohio State University.

DIRKS: ...And Karsonya Wise Whitehead.

WHITEHEAD: The founding executive director for the Karson Institute for Race, Peace and Social Justice at Loyola University in Baltimore, Md.

DIRKS: Whitehead also used to be the national secretary for ASALH, the Association for the Study of African American Life and History. It's the current incarnation of the organization founded by the man who's responsible for Black History Month.

WHITEHEAD: Dr. Carter G. Woodson.

JEFFRIES: Carter G. Woodson.

DIRKS: He founded Negro History Week in 1926, picking the week in February Abraham Lincoln was born and Frederick Douglass chose as his birthday.

WHITEHEAD: The idea was to make resources available for teachers, Black teachers, to celebrate the contributions that Black people have made to America.

DIRKS: Here's the historical context. This is the decade after the film "Birth Of A Nation," just after Red Summer, where white supremacists violently attacked Black neighborhoods and towns when lynchings were common. History professor Hasan Jeffries says it's also when the Lost Cause myth was taking deep root. That's the lie that obscures the reason the South fought the Civil War, which, to be clear, was to preserve chattel slavery.

JEFFRIES: A complete revision of the Civil War, of slavery, of emancipation, of Reconstruction was being deeply embedded into the American public education system.

DIRKS: So Negro History Week. Flash-forward to the 1970s, in the midst of some civil rights victories, it becomes nationally recognized as Black History Month. And where it has the most profound impact is exactly where Woodson intended it to - in the classroom. But Woodson probably didn't intend some of the ways that worked out.

WHITEHEAD: In school, all of a sudden, everything became about Black people, right? So you put up the pictures of King and you're putting your mac and cheese and collard greens into the cafeteria.

JEFFRIES: It was like, hey, let's talk about Black people for a couple days, right?

SHUKREE HASSAN TILGHMAN: That felt insulting, that we were invisible for 11 months out of the year. But now suddenly, we were visible in February.

DIRKS: That's Shukree Hassan Tilghman. He's a filmmaker and writer. And about a decade ago, he tried to cancel Black History Month.

TILGHMAN: Walking around the streets of New York wearing a placard that said end Black History Month on one side and Black history is American history on the other side.

DIRKS: It was basically a stunt, a conversation starter for a documentary film he made. But the problems with Black History Month are real, Tilghman says. Black history is more than a month. It's more than just the sanitized story of the same handful of heroes told over and over.

The problems with ending Black History Month are also real. In some places, it's the only way Black history gets taught at all.

TILGHMAN: If, but for Black History Month, those stories wouldn't be told, then we have a larger problem that is not Black History Month. And that's not actually a reason to keep Black History Month. That's a reason to fight for something better than Black History Month.

DIRKS: In some states and in some curriculums, there has been a concerted effort to integrate American history across the year. But history professor Hasan Jeffries says our current moment actually has a lot in common with when Carter G. Woodson founded Negro History Week - debates about Confederate monuments, white supremacist violence and trying to control history, like how Republican-led states are passing divisive topics laws, many that try and ban talking about systemic racism in the classroom or ban acknowledging that America was founded on racist principles.

JEFFRIES: It ain't no lie, right? I mean, what people are talking about with the American past, the founders being enslavers and racism being embedded into the Constitution, the framework of this nation, nobody's making that up. Like, this is what the reality was. And you can't keep that hidden. You cannot go back and erase history.

DIRKS: But it can be buried. Ernest Crim III is a high school history teacher in a suburb of Chicago. Illinois has no divisive topics ban. But Crim has found his students often don't learn a lot about systemic racism. He says you don't need a law.

ERNEST CRIM III: Even though some - every state isn't banning it, there's no need to because most history teachers don't really do it at all.

DIRKS: It's not always the individual teacher's fault, Crim says. It's a bigger, systemic problem. A lot of teachers are teaching to the tests that their kids have to pass. But in Crim's classroom, when Black History Month comes around...

CRIM: We're in February. But besides that, we just keep going. And matter of fact, we'll get to the civil rights unit in my class probably in March. And they're going to think it's February by how much we talk about Black people then (laughter).

DIRKS: Crim says in teaching history, separate is not equal. At the same time, many Black educators say Black History Month has this rich history and it's still necessary, a kind of narrative reparations.

Sandhya Dirks, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.