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 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr–and not a whole lot else. Proclaimed by President Gerald Ford in 1976, it was an outgrowth of Harvard educator Carter G Woodson's 1926 initiative Negro History Week. But if Black History Month has expanded the original by a factor of four, maybe it has also shrunken it. Social critic Doreen St. Félix wrote on the subject last February in The New Yorker. We spoke to her then and she told us that the focus on a handful of familiar faces obscures the true measure and the vital lessons of black history.
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's not really an effort to make anything more than shallow inquiries into what we might call the breath of black American history.
BOB GARFIELD: The George Washington Carver-ization of Black history.
DOREEN ST. FÉLIX: Exactly.
BOB GARFIELD: I refer of course to the only African-American scientist who ever lived.
DOREEN ST. FÉLIX: Haha.
BOB GARFIELD: Who famously came up with a 133 uses for the peanut, which is not nothing–but, perhaps, maybe over emphasized.
DOREEN ST. FÉLIX: Of course 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 were in that fever right now. You know, everybody is 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 over emphasized because he doesn't seem dangerous and that's why his work with the peanut is always emphasize. 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? Then you 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 an 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 is watching the Super Bowl, you might have seen that commercial.
BOB GARFIELD: The Dodge Ram truck commercial featuring Martin Luther King Jr.
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--[END CLIP]
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 decontextualized is 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. Or 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: Uhuh
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 you find ridiculous, why?
MORGAN FREEMAN: You're going to relegate my history to a month? Oh c'mom. What do you do with yours? What month is White history month?
MIKE WALLACE: Ha.
MORGAN FREEMAN: Now, come on, tell me.
MIKE WALLACE: I'm Jewish.
MORGAN FREEMAN: OK. Which month is Jewish history month?
MIKE WALLACE: Uh, there isn't one.
MORGAN FREEMAN: Oh, oh. Why not? You want one?
MIKE WALLACE: No.
MORGAN FREEMAN: No, no. I don't either. [END CLIP]
DOREEN ST. FÉLIX: So this interview is definitely entered the lore in terms of cantankerous old black people and their opinions. 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 preceded from the way that we think of Black History Month.
BOB GARFIELD: Whether 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 purposefully shaped would be the case of Recy Taylor. Oprah mentioned her during the Golden Globes Awards speech.
OPRAH WINFRY: When she was abducted by six armed white men raped and left blindfolded by the side of the road coming 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 became the lead investigator on her case. And together they sought justice. [END CLIP]
DOREEN ST. FÉLIX: And Rosa Parks as 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 that kind of like iconic image of her deciding that she was not going to get out of 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 happen.
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.
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BOB GARFIELD: Doreen St. Fêlix is a staff writer at The New Yorker. I spoke with her and February 2018.
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BOB GARFIELD: That's it for this week's show. On The Media is produced by Alana Casanova-Burgess. Micah Loewinger, Leah Feder, Jon Hanrahan and Asthaa Chaturverdi. We've had more help from Xandra Ellin. And our show was edited this week by Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Monsen. Our engineers this week were Sam Bair and Josh Han.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our executive producer. On The Media's Production of WNYC Studios. I’m Brooke Gladstone.