Black History Month and More

USF researchers say there is more to experience and explore around Black history than what can be covered in a month.


By Barbara Melendez

     USF News


TAMPA, Fla. (Mar. 4, 2011) – Black history, wasn’t that last month? Well, yes, but there’s a lot more to say on the subject, if you ask some professors at the University of South Florida.


Some comedians joke that February was chosen for Black History month because it was the shortest but the truth is, in coming up with the idea, Carter G. Woodson followed a tradition in African American communities of celebrating the births of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.  What started out as a week in 1926 – called Negro History week – was expanded to a month 50 years later. 


The full story from the Association for the Study of African American Life and History notes that Woodson looked forward to the day when the celebration would no longer be necessary because the knowledge of Black contributions to society would be presented to everyone all year long as part of American and world history.  This may take a lot longer than he had hoped.


USF’s Department of Africana Studies and the university’s Institute on Black Life faculty welcome the annual nod in their direction in February.  The events and special programs that mark Black History month come and go with a flurry of stories meant to highlight the history and accomplishments of an assortment of African Americans such as the customary noteworthy personages: George Washington Carver, Harriet Tubman, Booker T. Washington, Sojourner Truth, Martin Luther King, Jr. – great men and women all.  But there’s a great deal more to Black history than one month and a few famous names could ever hope to reveal.


Cheryl Rodriguez, executive director of the USF Institute on Black Life says, “It’s very simplistic to think that you can acknowledge any people’s history in a month.”  However, there’s some resistance to overcome. 


Some of the world’s most celebrated scholars were told as children, like just about everyone, that Africa and Africans had no history or culture to speak of or what little there was to know about Africans wasn’t worth studying.  John Hope Franklin, John Henrik Clarke and Lerone Bennett – to name just a few – went on to prove otherwise with groundbreaking scholarly achievements.  And, of course, Woodson created and launched the month-long celebration that helps in its own powerful way to chip away at those negative beliefs – to everyone’s benefit. 


“As the world becomes more diverse and global in perspective the absence of cultural literacy will be a greater liability,” observes the chair of the University of South Florida’s Department of Africana Studies.  “Without cultural literacy people will not be as effective as they could be in any career they choose.” And with those words Deborah Plant gets at why Black History Month only scratches the surface of what constitutes cultural literacy and points to the importance of Africana Studies.


Plant, Rodriguez and their colleagues have spent decades soldiering on one student and one doubter at a time against ignorance and outright hostility at times.  And they do so without holding any hard feelings, simply armed with patient determination, a love of research and teaching and satisfied by the delight of seeing students go on to careers of their own. Nonetheless, educating students and educators alike is something of an ongoing battle.  


“I’m sometimes surprised at how resistant people are to changing how they think about blackness,” Rodriguez said.  “But there’s nothing wrong with us talking about and acknowledging that there’s still work to be done.”


This applies to one touchy subject in particular - racism.  According to H. Roy Kaplan, it’s too soon to think this problem has come to an end since the 2008 election.  He teaches the courses Racism in American Society and the Global Challenge of Diversity and has just published The Myth of Post Racial America: Searching for Equality in the Age of Materialism.  


“Just because we have a person of color in the White House doesn’t mean that we’ve solved our racial problems,” Kaplan says. “In fact, his election elicited a torrent of racist comments and contributed to an increase in the number of hate groups in the United States.  The balance of political and economic power is still in the hands of white males in the U.S. Senate, the Supreme Court, and the Fortune 500. Sure, things have improved, but we still have a lot of work to do.”

Rodriguez agrees.  “The post-racial talk is an effort to erase history and the extent to which Black people have played an important role in this country’s social changes,” she says and adds, “We should be past the notion of race.  There’s only one race, the human race.  Race is a social construct that has been harmful to a great many people.  What we study is ethnicity in all of its dimensions.”   


Black History and Africana Studies departments are relatively new on the academic scene and struggle to be taken seriously in a world where ignorance of Africa’s contribution to civilization and world history is widespread even among the best educated.  They came into being as an extension of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. As a discipline, Africana/Black Studies is part of the curricula at every major university.


“There are people who want to separate out Black history, not out of recognition for its distinct place but to keep its subject matter invisible and silenced,” said Rodriguez.  “We exist to study what has been neglected for too long.”


USF’s program stands out for its attention to the applied skills component of what is taught here.


“We’re focusing on health and economic disparities, public health, human rights, education, and developing collaborations with information sciences as well as international affairs and community development all with an eye toward strengthening the preparation we offer our students as they go out into the world to work in various careers,” Plant said.  “People who don’t see the bigger picture ask, ‘What can I do with that degree?’ when talking about the liberal arts but even more so with Africana Studies.  But the relevance becomes self-evident.”


In addition to exploring territory never seen before, scholars in this field find themselves battling stereotypes and questioning assumptions in courses that they stress are not for or about Blacks only.  They accept that the burden is on them to prove their case and only ask for the chance to do so.   


“Often it’s just to fulfill a requirement but students can’t help but discover how rich this field is,” said Plant, whose research on Zora Neale Hurston has produced three books, with another one in the works. “Once they take a course, they get hooked and want to learn more.” 


An anthropologist, Rodriguez is writing about African Americans in Tampa and encourages students of all backgrounds to study African Americans in local communities, the state, the region, the nation and other countries. 


“There are so many stories of participation, courage and accomplishment, stories that are waiting to be told – data that is waiting to be collected and analyzed,” she said.


For the complete story, click here.