30/09/2013, by CLAS

Protest Memory: Black History Month for American Studies

Nearly 100 years ago, an African American intellectual decided to launch what he called “Negro History Week”. The son of former slaves, Carter G. Woodson wanted to popularize interest in black history, and transform the past from a site of pain (at slavery and lynching) to one of pride (at activism and accomplishment). He believed that knowledge of history would raise consciousness among black citizens of their own worth, and draw others’ attention to the long list of black contributions to American civilization. Fifty years later, the week of events had expanded to become Black History Month, marked in the U.S. in February and in the UK in October.

Though critiqued by some today as commodified, watered-down, tokenistic, shallow, simplistic, or hero-worshipping (why should black history be confined to one month? doesn’t this ghettoize black history? isn’t it racist?), and famously rejected by the actor Morgan Freeman in 2005 (“I don’t want a Black History Month. Black history is American history”), Black History Month celebrations continue as a necessary corrective to the marginalization of the black story in school curriculums, textbooks, movies, TV shows, monuments, heritage plaques. Only when American citizens are as familiar with ‘General’ Harriet Tubman as General George Custer, and British citizens are as familiar with Mary Seacole as Florence Nightingale, will Black History Month finally be irrelevant. As well, Black History Month asks us to reflect on the social justice work of historical figures that remains incomplete—the challenges of racial inequality that endure. So long as unemployment rates, incarceration levels, police profiling, hate crimes and job discrimination continue to disproportionately affect black citizens in the US and the UK, Black History Month remains vital as a call to look backward in order to move forward. For now at least, it is here to stay.

Nottingham’s Department of American and Canadian Studies will mark Black History Month in 2013 with two major and related events: a film festival across two nights (6pm, October 8 and 9, Hallward screening room) and a special lecture by one of the world’s leading historians (6pm, October 16, Highfield House A1/A2).

The film festival also marks the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Movement and features screenings of two very different civil rights movies: “The Help” (2011) and “Freedom Song” (2000). In post-screening discussions, Professors Sharon Monteith and Zoe Trodd will debate the films’ depictions of civil rights, black history and social justice: What versions of history do these two films offer? Is it a problem that a white woman is the central figure in the Oscar-winning film “The Help”? How is this part of a wider tendency in Hollywood to focus on white hero figures and the black characters who need their help? Is the film really a depiction of interracial friendship? Does the smaller-budget film “Freedom Song,” for which former SNCC members acted as consultants, avoid or repeat this Hollywoodization of history?

In his lecture on October 16, Yale University historian David Blight will mark not only the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Movement but also the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, with a talk about the memory of the war and emancipation during civil rights. Why does the Civil War have such an enduring and conflicted hold on collective memory? What did the Emancipation of slaves mean 100 years later, to civil rights activists of the 1960s? How did they try to use that memory for the purposes of their own movement? Both events will ask: does history matter to contemporary social justice issues? Does the memory of the black past shape its present? Should it? Can commemoration ever be a spur for social change or does it merely contain and dilute the past’s potentially radical message?

Zoe Trodd, Professor of American Literature, Department of American and Canadian Studies

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Posted in American and Canadian Studies