Officially recognized by the U.S. government in 1976, Black History Month starts tomorrow and, with it, the debate over whether the nation needs a special time to recall and honor the contributions of African Americans to U.S. culture and history.
Actor Morgan Freeman has called for the event's demise, arguing that black history is American history. Other critics point to the progress African Americans have made toward equality over the past 60 years. The nation has, for example, its first African American president. But it also has nearly 1 million black men in prison, more than were enslaved in the Antebellum South.
At any rate, the important debate over racial progress – or lack of it – doesn't decide this question. Fact is, most Americans, including and especially white Americans, don't understand or appreciate the positive contributions of African Americans, or how much African American cultural achievements, struggles, fortitude, history, and even style have shaped the American story.
Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Malcolm X and, for that matter, saxophonist John Coltrane and singer Billie Holiday are as important to this nation's history and culture as the Founding Fathers, maybe more so.
Mr. Douglass helped make the U.S. Constitution whole at a time when white Americans were debating whether black Americans were eligible for rights they were already guaranteed. Mr. Coltrane and Ms. Holiday, and countless other jazz and blues musicians, helped create and develop, arguably, America's greatest contribution to world culture in the 20th century.
These pioneers, and countless others, were uniquely American – home-grown Yankee Doodle Dandies – who couldn't have sprung from any other country in the world, despite its many failings.
Cultural critics, sociologists, journalists, and educators continue to frame too much of the African American experience in terms of pathology and deprivation, marginalizing black achievement even while advancing a very legitimate debate over how far the nation has to go to fulfill the dream of racial equality.
African American history is, as Mr. Freeman suggests, American history. But until most Americans regard it as such in a complete and reverent way, they will need a month to remind them -- even if it is the shortest of the year.