KGOU

OU’s Karlos Hill Talks About The Past, Present And Future Of Black History Month

Feb 27, 2017

Dr. Karlos Hill is an Associate Professor of African and African-American Studies at the University of Oklahoma and founding director of African and African-American Studies Distinguished Lecture Series. Black History Month is an American mainstay, and Hill says he celebrates it “365.”

In many years, the observance has served to heal wounds and educate people about the achievements and lasting contributions of African-Americans.

“It's common to see representations of very important African-American leaders like Martin Luther King, or Malcolm X, or Sojourner Truth, or Frederick Douglass. I mean the list goes on and on,” Hill says. “And so I think African-American history, it plays a much more central role in how we think about American history. Only those individuals like King and Malcolm X typically get their due.”

Hill argues that Black History Month has "become a comforting ritual for congratulating ourselves on how far we as a nation have come rather than critically assessing the work that remains to be done," and many people feel race relations in America still has a long way to go.

Beyond the Rope: The Impact of Lynching on Black Culture in Memory by Doctor Karlos Hill

“It's those painful histories, those difficult histories that we need to confront during Black History Month,” says Hill. “And not just have dialogues about them but talk about the ways that we can take action to correct some of the intergenerational issues that those histories bring forth. And so Black History Month should be a call to action as well as a moment of remembrance.”

Dr. Hill's book entitled Beyond the Rope: The Impact of Lynching on Black Culture in Memory was published by Cambridge University Press in 2016.

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Interview Highlights

On The Founding of Negro History Week

Carter G. Woodson, an African-American historian, he created Negro History Week in 1926. And he created Negro History Week, which was at that time celebrated during the second week of February, because two of his heroes actually, two African-American heroes, Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, their birthdays fell within the second week of February. And so initially it was Negro History Week beginning in 1926 and Carter G. Woodson founded it because African-Americans were completely excluded from American history. If you looked at any textbook, any historical text, African-Americans would be completely excluded. To the extent that they were included, it was oftentimes in very demeaning ways.

On How To Move Forward From A Painful Past

When it comes to the history of slavery, when it comes to the history of lynching, when it even comes to racial bias in the civil rights movement, we as a society have not acknowledged that those things happened and the impact that they've had on American society. And so maybe someone can do a lot of reading and come to certain truths about the American past. But that pales in comparison to a community coming together and saying, "We have acknowledged this. We have talked about ways that we can move forward. And now we're going to move forward along those lines." And so that only happens when we do the difficult thing, which is to confront what's happened and we haven't really done that to the extent that we need to. Whether it's a Tulsa Race Riot or, and I'm not just speaking about Oklahoma I'm speaking nationally now, we haven't done that. And so, there is no easy way to reconciliation.

On The Future Of Black History Month

Will there ever be a time where we don't need to celebrate the Fourth of July? Would there ever be a time where we don't need to celebrate Memorial Day? I mean, no. We will always celebrate those because those are moments in which we can reflect about the sacrifices that have been made so that we can be free. The same thing for Black History Month… If only black people need to reflect on the Martin Luther Kings of the world, the Malcolm Xs of the world, who made sacrifices so that we could be free… And so we will always need that ritual. Now it doesn't need to be a self-comforting, self-congratulatory ritual. It needs to renew our spirit of resistance and taking action in the present. But we will always need that ritual just like we need 4th of July. Just like we need Memorial Day.

FULL TRANSCRIPT

MERLEYN BELL, HOST: I thought we could start with a conversation about the history of Black History Month. And have you explain when it was founded, why it was founded, and what its creators hoped to achieve.

KARLOS HILL: Yes. Carter G. Woodson, an African-American historian, he created Negro History Week in 1926. And he created Negro History Week, which was at that time celebrated during the second week of February, because two of his heroes actually, two African-American heroes, Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, their birthdays fell within the second week of February. And so initially it was Negro History Week beginning in 1926 and Carter G. Woodson founded it because African-Americans were completely excluded from American history. If you looked at any textbook, any historical text, African-Americans would be completely excluded. To the extent that they were included, it was oftentimes in very demeaning ways. And so in 1926, you essentially had a white supremacist vision of American history that discounted or excluded black people and so Carter G. Woodson sort of believed that it was necessary to correct that record. And so one way to correct that record was to establish Negro History Week. When it initially began, it was much more of a communal celebration of black history so you would have, you know, African-American school kids creating, writing papers, creating poster projects to illustrate the impact, the significance, the contributions that black people have made to American history. And so in those initial years, it was really a contributionist history that was really being put forth and that has kind of stayed with us. And that contributionist history again occurred because so much of American history was about denying black people their place, their rightful place in American history. And so contributionism became sort of the standard way in which to celebrate African-American, or excuse me, Black History Month.

BELL: When did it go from that initial week to a full month?

HILL: In 1976 the Association for the Study of African-American Life and History organization that Carter G. Woodson founded 50 years later decided that Negro History Week was not enough. That we actually deserved a month, and they petitioned Congress and in 1976 got Congress to... I mean, they didn't just ask Congress and Congress acquiesced. It occurred over many years but in 1976 on the 50th anniversary, Congress passed a law that you know recognized February as Black History Month.

BELL: Were the intentions still educational at that point? Sort of in the schools and through the educational system?

HILL: Yes. I mean we have to also remember that it was 1976 and so we haven't really... This is still the era of the civil rights and black power movement. This is still the era of sort of black students mobilizing on campuses for African and African-American studies programs. It's not clear at this time that there will be a place within the academy for black studies. It's not clear whether African-American history is going to become mainstream in the way that it has now. And so in 1976 it was still very much a, you know, battle being waged over what American history ought to look like. And so African-American History Month or Black History Month was an important part of that struggle.

BELL: How have the perceptions of the importance of Black History Month changed over time?

HILL: I mean, it's changed. I mean, now in 2017 during Black History Month, and actually during throughout the year, it's common to see representations of very important African-American leaders like Martin Luther King or Malcolm X or Sojourner Truth or Frederick Douglass. I mean the list goes on and on. It's common to see them. And so I think African-American history, it plays a much more central role in how we think about American history. Only those individuals like King and Malcolm X typically get their due. More obscure people tend not to get talked about as well as very difficult aspects of black history tend to get ignored or discounted during Black History Month. So it's a very uneven sort of treatment of black history during Black History Month and so that's one of the things that we need to correct.

BELL: I want to ask about that initial goal that Woodson had and that people have had over time. Do you think, I mean I know that you've already sort of posited that we're not going deeply enough, but do you think that their initial goal has been achieved in any way?

HILL: I mean you know you have to remember that they were starting from nil. They were starting from zero. And so I think if they were to be awakened in 2017 and look at what's happened with all the black studies programs around the country. We have a black studies program here at OU. If you look at sort of how African-American history has become mainstream to a certain extent, where it's no longer sort of stigmatized in the way that it was. I think they would think that, "Job well done. Mission completed," perhaps. But if we were to take a much more critical look and think about the kind of history that gets presented during Black History Month, and even to a certain extent gets celebrated during Black History Month, I think we're far away from where we should be in terms of what I would argue Black History Month should ideally look like.

BELL: Well let's take a more critical look together today. You know, we've talked about Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X and these people that everybody sort of knows about and the history that everybody sort of knows about. But I think what you're arguing is that we're not going deeply enough in our conversations and our critical thinking about black history. How would you suggest that we do that?

HILL: So if we just take Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., we tend to celebrate his 1963 "I Have A Dream" speech where he talks about the beloved community. We don't talk about the 1968 King, which was pushing America for a war against poverty, for a living wage for American workers, for health care, for the end of the Vietnam War. That radical King gets forgotten or just simply erased during Black History Month. In many ways we take the low hanging fruit and use that to say we are embracing African-American history. So what needs to happen, or I think for African-American History Month, Black History Month to be relevant, is sort of confront the most difficult aspects of our history in ways that are productive. I mean and it has to be community based. So if we think about the state of Oklahoma, one aspect of Oklahoma history that schools still don't really talk about or teach students about is the Tulsa Race Riot. There's virtually, I mean I talk to students every day in my history classes and they say, "I learned nothing about Tulsa when I was in grade school or even when I was in high school." And so it's those painful histories, those difficult histories that we need to confront during Black History Month. And not just have dialogues about them but talk about the ways that we can take action to correct some of the intergenerational issues that those histories bring forth. And so Black History Month should be a call to action as well as a moment of remembrance.

BELL: What do you think keeps people from going there? I mean, what is it that makes it so difficult to get to that place?

HILL: I mean because ultimately people feel like they're going to either be assigned blame or culpability for that history. So if we begin to talk about the Tulsa Race Riot and all the damage and the harm that was done, in many people's minds that's going to lead to conversations of reparations. And that's a conversation that most people don't want to have because you know, "I wasn't born then. My parents had nothing to do with that," or "My great grandparents had nothing to do with that," you know. And so, "You're making me feel like I'm somehow, I was complicit in something that I wasn't." And there's it's just a lot of shame and people don't necessarily know how to deal with the shame of an event, which was the deadliest race riot in American history. You know, some argue that over 300 people were killed during that riot, most of which were black. And so there's a lot of pent up shame. There is a refusal to sort of want to deal with the long term effects of a race riot like that because at the end of the day, people feel like they're going to be made to feel like they are culpable in that in some way. I mean, there are many other reasons why. But those are typically the two reasons that come up most frequently.

BELL: I feel like you're talking about reasons in the white community or outside of African-American communities. I wonder if there's also a hesitation within the African-American community to you know sort of start those conversations.

HILL: Yeah I mean, it's community to community but you know you can understand how those kinds of conversations might interrupt or interfere with, you know, sort of relationships that have been formed and nurtured over time with maybe the city of Tulsa, or maybe with individuals in the white community. You can imagine how this issue would become really polarizing and so there could be a reticence to sort of want to tackle and confront this history in the black community. You know this is a painful history for black people as well. And so this is a history in which, you know, people were lynched and people were brutally murdered. Many black people don't want to face that, right? That very discomforting history. And so for all those reasons on the African-American side, that could be reasons for not wanting to confront it. But my feeling is that the only way that, you know, Black History Month becomes meaningful is that we confront those painful, painful histories. Because if we can confront those constructively and address the issues, the intergenerational issues that emerge from it, now we're moving towards racial reconciliation. To the extent that we're not willing to confront those issues, we're moving further away from racial reconciliation in the present. So that's why it's so important to tackle the difficult histories. The comforting histories, we do that well, but we don't get very far with those histories.

BELL: What would you say to people who, you know, whether they're thinking about a specific event like the Tulsa Race Riot or just black history month in general, that they're really ready to move on. You know, that they not only don't want to go back to an uncomfortable past, but really feel like, "That's not going to do us any good. There's no reason to go back there. We all know what happened. Let's just move on together." How do we address that feeling from people and that sort of feedback from people who just say, "Yeah, I'm over it. I'm ready to move on. I'm ready to, you know, do that racial reconciliation and be, you know, in this reconciled place, but I'm over it.

HILL: I mean I would ask them, "How did you get over it? What was the process by which you got over this painful history?" Because if we look back at countries that "got over" their painful past. If we look at Germany, they didn't have a truth and reconciliation but they had something very similar to that and that was a process by which, you know, it's actually not just a community but society came together to acknowledge, sort of, The Holocaust and all the damage that occurred because of the actions of the Nazi regime. In South Africa in the 1990s, a Truth and Reconciliation Committee that was established to establish what actually happened during an era as well as to suggest what needed to happen going forward to make, you know, to provide not necessarily reparations, but to build a transition to a society in which democracy rather than apartheid was going to be the norm. And so that was a process. It was painful. It was messy. It was difficult. But individuals as well as communities themselves confronted that history and therefore they could say, you know, "We have moved on from this," even though we know that they haven't. But they could say in certain ways that they have moved beyond this because they had at the very least acknowledge that as a society. When it comes to the history of slavery, when it comes to the history of lynching, when it even comes to racial bias in the civil rights movement, we as a society have not acknowledged that those things happened and the impact that they've had on American society. And so maybe someone can do a lot of reading and come to certain truths about the American past. But that pales in comparison to a community coming together and saying, "We have acknowledged this. We have talked about ways that we can move forward. And now we're going to move forward along those lines." And so that only happens when we do the difficult thing, which is to confront what's happened and we haven't really done that to the extent that we need to. Whether it's a Tulsa Race Riot or, and I'm not just speaking about Oklahoma I'm speaking nationally now, we haven't done that. And so that work... There is no easy way to reconciliation. And that's what, for someone who would say that to me, I would say, "You're looking for the easy way to reconciliation, the shallow way, the hollow way to racial reconciliation." A meaningful reconciliation only happens through confronting the past.

BELL: What are some other criticisms that you hear from people about Black History Month in general or a need to continue celebrating it?

HILL: Well people say that it ghettoize is African-American history because we only think about it or celebrate it during the month of February, the coldest month even. And then you have people who say, "Well African-American history is American history. Why are we separating it out from American history? We should celebrate African-American history but only in the context of American history." And so there are people who are uncomfortable with making that distinction and so those are typically the criticisms to the month that I hear.

BELL: Do you think that any of those criticisms have validity?

HILL: I mean you know, I celebrate Black History Month 365. You know there's not a day that I don't celebrate Black History Month but... I mean, I think they are valid to a certain extent. I mean my main criticism of Black History Month is we go for the low hanging fruit. We tend to celebrate the more comforting aspects of African-American history. You know we we celebrate the African-American firsts. The first to integrate this, or the first black astronaut, whatever it is. We love celebrating firsts, and we love celebrating great men not so much great women, but great men. And those are the low hanging fruit. But then when it comes to really talking about those painful histories and the way in which those painful history still are impacting us today, that's when we get silent. That's when we get mute. That's when we don't want to celebrate Black Black History Month and so my main criticism is the sort of the comforting and the self congratulation that goes on during Black History Month. That's, I would say, somewhat useful, maybe necessary but not at the expense of that other kind of history.

BELL: So we're nearing the end of this Black History Month. Do you have that same criticism in 2017 considering all of the discussion it seems like we're having, or attempting to have in the media, and you know on shows like this... Do you still have that same criticism or do you think 2017 is maybe a better year?

HILL: Yeah I mean it's not because of Black History Month we're having those questions. Black History Month is sort of its own separate thing again. And I should say that I'm guilty of you know being a part of the problem. You know when I tend to speak about black history month during Black History Month, I tend to go for that low hanging fruit because that's what engages people most quickly. And so I'm guilty of the same thing. But I think as an institution in order for it to remain relevant, people like me as well as others need to really think carefully about the kind of black history we are putting forth and why are we putting it forth. And so, but to answer your question directly, the kinds of conversations that we're having today have very little to do with Black History Month and everything to do with what's happening in the streets; the police brutality, et cetera, et cetera. And so I don't see a relationship there.

BELL: You don't feel that those conversations could especially be highlighted in Black History Month?

HILL: Oh yeah. And they will be. But Black History Month isn't generating those questions. That's what I'm saying.

BELL: Do you envision a time when we won't need Black History Month anymore or is it something that, you know, as Americans we may always want to celebrate even if that in the future you know some some utopic future that racial reconciliation does take place? Will there be a time when it's not needed?

HILL: I mean the way in which I would turn the question around. I would say, you know, will there ever be a time where we don't need to celebrate the Fourth of July? Would there ever be a time where we don't need to celebrate Memorial Day? I mean, no. We will always celebrate those because those are moments in which we can reflect about the sacrifices that have been made so that we can be free. The same thing for Black History Month is we need to... If only black people need to reflect on the Martin Luther Kings of the world, the Malcolm Xs of the world, who made sacrifices so that we could be free. And so we will always need that ritual. Now it doesn't need to be a self-comforting, self-congratulatory ritual. It needs to renew our spirit of resistance and taking action in the present. But we will always need that ritual just like we need 4th of July. Just like we need Memorial Day.