David White is the history chairman at Kaufman High School in Kaufman, Texas. I have known David for what seems like forever; we have attended conferences together and have exchanged ideas related to the teaching of history over the course of this time. He also maintains a blog here. David is a wonderful colleague and a better friend.
Above: Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Recently TIME Magazine invited Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. to participate in TIME’s weekly feature “10 Questions.” Each week “10 Questions” allows readers to submit questions to various well known personalities.
The entire article can be found here…
I’ve admired Henry Louis Gates Jr. for a long time. As one of America’s most noted scholars on African-American studies I’ve always appreciated his thorough academic approach to dealing with the problems of race relations in America.
That is why I was a bit surprised by some of his answers to TIME’s 10 Questions. One reader posed the following question…
Is African-American history taught enough in our schools? David Veigel, VIRGINIA BEACH
Gates: No. African-American history is generally taught only in Black History Month, which is February, the coldest, darkest, shortest month. It’s like the month that was left over, they gave to black people. I’m a big advocate of teaching history in our public schools on a multicultural level.
While I agree that that African-American history should be taught throughout the year and on a multicultural level I was astounded by his inference that Black History Month was assigned to the month of February out of spite by the white establishment since it is the “coldest, darkest, shortest month.” Gates is a brilliant man which is why I am shocked by the ignorance of his statement that February was assigned Black History Month because it was “the month that was left over.”
Black History Month was borne from Dr. Carter Godwin Woodson’s attempt to rectify the neglect of African American history in American academia. Dr. Carter Godwin Woodson, the second African-American after W.E.B. Du Bois to earn a PhD in history from Harvard University, established the second week of February as Negro History Week to help bring African American studies to the American educational consciousness. He deliberately chose the second week of February to honor the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass which fall during that week. In 1976 Negro History Week was expanded to Black History Month and assigned to February out of respect for both Lincoln and Douglass’s birthday and Woodson’s inspired assignation. It is widely believed that Woodson himself hoped that someday the week would be eliminated as African-American History became fully integrated into American historical studies.
Ironically, Gates detailed the history of African History Month with Cornel West in their scholarly work, The African American Century. There are very few people, if any, with a greater grasp of African American history than Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. That’s what makes his comments so difficult to fathom. These types of comments are intellectually dangerous because they only serve to stoke the fires of ignorance regarding the history of race relationships in America and the place of African American studies in the American Academy.
These fires regarding the place of African American history still persist. This past year I was serving on the committee that determines our school district’s calendar. One high level administrator was hell-bent on assigning President’s Day as a student holiday despite the fact that my district had never honored that holiday in the ten-years I had served there. I had no issue celebrating President’s Day however the justification he gave was deplorable at best and racist at worst. His argument, a time-tested one in East Texas, was that if Martin Luther King Jr. gets a day then we better darn well celebrate Lincoln and Washington in February.
Another one of the featured questions presented to Gates and his answer in the TIME feature involved this exchange…
Is it right for African Americans to use the N word? Pitufo Geiger BAGUIO CITY, PHILIPPINES
Gates: I was raised hearing black people using the N word, and I don’t find it offensive at all. I do find it offensive when a nonblack person uses it. The use of the “N word” has been debated and discussed in many forums including this blog so I don’t want to belabor the point except to say that Gates’ argument violates every principle of Aristotilean logic. A word as offensive as the N word is as offensive in a black context as it is in a white context. Granted, I write this as a white male and in pragmatic terms it may make sense that my use of the word seems more heinous than its use by an African-American. But I personally believe that any word that demeans any person of any color demeans the entire human race regardless of context.
I believe Gates, who has done so much for the advancement of African American studies, did a great disservice with his recent 10 Questions. My hope is that this man who I greatly admire was taken out of context. Perhaps the mood of the interview was satirical and jocular in tone. However I believe his comments only add fuel to the fire for those looking to perpetuate any attempt to eliminate multi-cultural studies in the United States. Fortunately there is a great possibility that those who do perpetuate racial hatred in America never would likely read an article in TIME magazine in the first place.