BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield. February is Black History Month, which explains the latest national celebration of Frederick Douglass, George Washington Carver, Harriet Tubman and Martin Luther King, Jr. -- and not a whole lot else. The commemoration, proclaimed by Gerald Ford in 1976 as an outgrowth of Harvard educator Carter G. Woodson’s 1926 initiative "Negro History Week," has expanded the scope of the original by a factor of four but also perhaps shrunken it. Historian John William Templeton says the reductiveness of the pomp and iconography minus actual history has contaminated the grandeur with elements of farce.
And, writing in the New Yorker, social critic Doreen St. Félix says that the focus on the handful of familiar faces obliterates the view of black history writ large.
DOREEN ST. FÉLIX: Black History Month, having been something that was established a little over 40 years ago, we've seen that it's very quickly taken on this character where we pay lip service to very recognizable and often strictly political black figures. There is not really an effort to make anything more than shallow inquiries into what we might call the breadth of black American history.
BOB GARFIELD: The George Washington Carver-ization of black history.
DOREEN ST. FÉLIX: [LAUGHS] Exactly.
BOB GARFIELD: I refer, of course, to the only African American scientist who ever lived [LAUGHS] --
[ST. FÉLIX LAUGHS]
-- who famously came up with 133 uses for the peanut, which is not nothing but perhaps maybe over emphasized?
DOREEN ST. FÉLIX: Of course, it’s very significant that George Washington Carver was a scientist and a food anthropologist when he was, and he made many advancements into the way that the American diet actually exists today. He was one of the first people who figured out recipes for pressing nuts into milk. And we’re in that fever right now. You know, everybody’s like trying to find another kind of milk alternative, and this was someone who anticipated that nearly a century ago.
But what happens is when students are taught that someone like George Washington Carver is a saint of black history, there's a strange political frame that emerges. Someone like Carver is overemphasized because he doesn't seem dangerous, and that's why his work with the peanut is always emphasized. George Washington Carver was actually someone who advocated for black farmers in the South but that's not something that you hear because, of course, then a suite of questions ensue: why were these Americans poor? Many start talking about Jim Crow, and that’s not something that is really encouraged in our general conversations.
BOB GARFIELD: On the other hand, as it was originally conceived, at least by Gerald Ford, I suppose, to inspire pride and understanding of shared black history and distinct black history in the United States, it's not entirely useless. Has it met its principal goal?
DOREEN ST. FÉLIX: It is important and it does affect students of all races to learn that there have been great black American figures. But, at the same time, I think it's important for us to remain vigilant about how certain narratives are being flattened and being commercialized often. For anyone who was watching the Super Bowl, you might have seen that commercial.
BOB GARFIELD: The Dodge Ram truck commercial featuring Martin Luther King, Jr.
[CLIP/SERMON VOICEOVER FOR SUPER BOWL AD]:
REV. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.: If you want to be important -- wonderful. If you want to be recognized -- wonderful. If you want to be great -- wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant.
DOREEN ST. FÉLIX: For those of us who feel very sensitive to the commercialization of his legacy, it’s heartbreaking. Watching a game that has brutalized so many men, and many of those men being black, and then, again seeing a commercial that completely decontextualizes the agenda of a figure like Martin Luther King, Jr., his socialism is something that is like just not mentioned at all during this month and not mentioned at all during Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, which happens the month before. So you're always in this really tenuous spot when you recognize that whatever we get is good, right, because we get so little but, at the same time, we always want to be pushing for more and for higher quality education.
BOB GARFIELD: There are those, and I am right now thinking of Morgan Freeman, the actor --
DOREEN ST. FÉLIX: Uh huh.
BOB GARFIELD: -- who think that any effort to discriminate between the American black experience and American history altogether is itself a mistake. Here he is in a conversation with the late Mike Wallace on 60 Minutes.
MIKE WALLACE: Black History Month you find ridiculous. Why?
MORGAN FREEMAN: You’re going to relegate my history to a month?
WALLACE: Oh, come on.
FREEMAN: Well, what do you do with yours? Which month is white history month?
WALLACE: [LAUGHS] Well…
FREEMAN: Well, come on. Tell me.
WALLACE: Well -- I'm Jewish.
FREEMAN: Okay. Which month is Jewish history month?
WALLACE: There isn't one.
FREEMAN: Oh. Oh, why not? Do you want one?
WALLACE: No. No.
FREEMAN: No. I, I don’t either.
DOREEN ST. FÉLIX: So this interview has definitely entered the lore in terms of cantankerous old black people and their opinions. [LAUGHS] Obviously, what Freeman is saying -- it has a grain of truth -- black history is not something that can be relegated to a month.
BOB GARFIELD: What he’s describing is segregated history.
DOREEN ST. FÉLIX: And that's how he sees it. Of course, there are people, like myself, who find problems with Black History Month but don't necessarily see it as, like, a segregationist exercise. It originated in the work of Carter G. Woodson who was the second black person to receive a doctorate from Harvard after, of course, the “Father of Black History” DuBois. When he and his colleagues were building Journals of African American History, when they were establishing associations, what they were discussing was that a subjugated people needs to have its history in order to assert its identity within the present. And that’s, I think, a very radical political notion that has proceeded from the way that we think of Black History Month.
BOB GARFIELD: By the way, it’s George Washington and the cherry tree or Lincoln freeing the slaves or “Ask not what your country can do for you.” We don't typically consume any part of our history in the most sophisticated and multidimensional form. Is there something peculiar about Black History Month that makes it more trivialized than the rest of the country's history?
DOREEN ST. FÉLIX: I think absolutely and that is, to be crude, it is the forces of racism and how they have contributed to the way historiography works in America. So one of the clearest examples I actually experienced this year, in terms of how black history is like purposely shaped, would be the case of Recy Taylor. Oprah mentioned her during the Golden Globes Awards speech.
OPRAH WINFREY: When she was abducted by six armed white men, raped and left blindfolded by the side of the road comin’ home from church, they threatened to kill her if she ever told anyone. But her story was reported to the NAACP where a young worker by the name of -- Rosa Parks --
[AUDIENCE MEMBERS CLAPPING]
-- became the lead investigator on her case, and together they sought justice.
DOREEN ST. FÉLIX: And Rosa Parks is someone that we have a very high, we actually have a high familiarity with her social contributions, right? But this story didn't really fit with the kind of, like, iconic image of her deciding that she was not going to get off her seat in the bus. It’s not something that we can fit into acceptable narratives or like etiquette of how we actually think civil rights happened.
BOB GARFIELD: Should instead of George Washington Carver, we be seeing Recy Taylor? Should we be seeing Medgar Evers, Emmett Till, Malcolm X? Is the main problem here not what is presented but what is not presented?
DOREEN ST. FÉLIX: I think that's definitely a place to begin but I think also something that needs to be emphasized is a sense of movements in black history. Because we emphasize so much individual figures, we don't have a sense of the communities that they've actually come from.
BOB GARFIELD: Doreen, thank you so much.
DOREEN ST. FÉLIX: Thank you so much for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: Doreen St. Félix is a staff writer for the New Yorker.