Shukree Tilghman: The End of Black History Month

Posted on February 19, 2010

ITVS offers viewers the opportunity to explore the rich and vibrant history and cultural contributions of African Americans throughout the year, but this month we're offering a special slate of new and encore programs in honor of Black History Month. We recently asked Shukree Tilghman, filmmaker of the ITVS-funded film More Than A Month, to share his thoughts on Black History Month and why he believes it no longer exists. Read his take below.

It's February, time to take a moment –– or a day or a week or the whole month –– to recognize, honor, and celebrate the unique and multi-faceted history of the African in America. At least that's what I thought February was about. Turns out I was wrong. This seems an appropriate time to mention that I am smack in the middle of making an ITVS-funded documentary film, More Than A Month, which follows me on a cross-country campaign to end Black History Month (BHM). Through the lens of this journey, the film takes a critical, and sometimes comedic look at what it means that we have a black history month and what it would mean if we didn't. 

Well, I have some interesting news to report from the field: Black History Month has ended. I don't mean it's March 1, I mean BHM has ceased to exist. That's right. It's over. Gone. Caput. I cannot tell you exactly when it ended, but it's gone. And despite the film and the campaign within –– I didn't do it (so don't go pointing the finger at me). But you can follow the journey at Okay, enough shameless plugs. Back to the point. All evidence that I have collected so far, from “man on the street” interviews, to spending time at a black advertising agency and with BHM planning committees, to attending BHM events, points to a somewhat sudden truth. February is no longer Black History Month. Nope. It's Black PEOPLE Month... meaning anything that has to with black life and culture is fair game in February. Anything. Are you a black author? February book tour! A black designer? February fashion show! A black out of work actor? Don't worry. February presents a plethora of opportunities for you, and most of them won't be historical in nature so you can avoid the awkwardness of playing a “servant.” Well...most of you. Are you a semi-famous political commentator with a take on racism? CNN has gigs for you, player!

A black chef? At least one national grocery store chain is sponsoring in-store “soul food tasting events” February! Are you a diversity trainer? Seriously, February is your month. Seriously. Are you black and in a corporate environment? Sooner or later, someone is going to ask you what “we” should do for February. You could make up anything. Really. Try it. I went with free Black History Month haircuts at a local black Barber Shop. Then I saw it actually exists! Check it out >> Do you like black people? Prove it. Do something in February! (Again, anything. It doesn't really matter). Even if you're a black filmmaker making a film critical of these practices, you can write a blog about it... in February! The weird thing about all this is that it's hard to say exactly what is wrong with these practices. (I can hear some of my more militant people going "What? I can tell you a hundred things wrong with it!" Bear with me). 

On the surface, it's the celebration of a people, of a culture. What's wrong with that? Nothing. But, there's a thin, sometimes indistinguishable line between honor, celebration, and being put in a box, one's culture chained to a particular month. And, if anyone should be vigilant about being chained...okay, bad joke. But seriously, because the history of Africans in America is rife with the struggle to be seen, respected, valued as human, as citizen, as American, we have a particular responsibility to protect this reality. It is not only the responsibility of African Americans, but all Americans. Because if any of our cultures give way to the myth of “white” as the default and everybody else has a little designated spot, then it threatens all of us –– my white folks included –– because it doesn't reflect the truth of our existence. 

We, Americans, are a special blend of folks with a history at once violent and corrupt while filled with awe inspiring grace and strength. How we treat the story of our people, the story of us, tells not only who we were, but who we are. Let's not forget the original point. It's Black History Month people. History. There's a reason it started that way, with a specific mission to ensure the inclusion of African American history into the American History narrative in education and society, in the hopes that one day Black History Month itself would not be necessary. It seems Black History Month has ended, but I'm not sure if what has taken its place is truly serving this original mission. Hmmm. That said, I'm on my way to get one of those free haircuts. It's free, people. Free. 

- Shukree Tilghman Filmmaker of More Than a Month


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