The Heritage Month Dilemma

First, celebrations are in order for both Soichiro Honda and Isamu Noguchi, who share a November 17th birthday. It’s a nice little coincidence that two very different creative minds from Japan should share the same birthday.

A peek at the calendar reveals all sorts of other special days and notable celebrations this month: It’s National Alzheimer’s Awareness Month, National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo, for short) and of course, National American Indian Heritage Month. But looking at the calendar always brings up the same question: are special months a double-edged sword?

You can see why something like National American Indian Heritage Month would have some appeal for us. It gives us an opportunity to recommend specific books and gives teachers a reason to use them in the classroom. It brings attention to a people and a history that have been (and continue to be) largely ignored, and provides a simple way to address it and build it into the curriculum, or discussion, or whatever.

But if November is National American Indian Heritage Month, what are the other 11 months? Does celebrating a culture during its “special month” give people an excuse to ignore it during the rest of the year?

I don’t know, but it’s something that comes up every year, and will continue to come up all the way into February, which is Black History Month. Last year Black History Month fell right around Obama’s inauguration, and some people wondered whether it was still necessary. As Chicago Tribune columnist Dawn Turner Trice said in this NPR interview, “I do think – and I’ve heard from many readers who have said that African-American history should be merged with American history, because it cheapens one or both to segregate one from the other.” But, she added, “I think that one of the things that’s key is that we, as a country, still aren’t all that well-versed in black history.”

So are heritage months divisive or necessary? I think they might be both. They do reinforce the idea that our history is not your history, our culture is not your culture. But if they get us to learn and pay attention, are they worth the damage they cause? What do you think?

3 thoughts on “The Heritage Month Dilemma”

  1. They are a two edged sword, like the term multicultural itself, and awards designated for specific racial or cultural groups. On the one hand such openings give otherwise ignored voices a chance to be heard. But on the other, there are in themselves marginalizing. They shunt really wonderful culturally grounded books aside into a category of their own instead of letting them be judged alongside other work in their respective genres, fiction or nonfiction or whatever it might be.

  2. Uma, I think you’re right about that. Any time you do any sort of labeling, grouping, etc. you are marginalizing people. Roger Sutton has a post today on http://www.hbook.com/blog/ about just that when it comes to the CSK award. We joke here at Lee & Low that our ultimate goal is to make ourselves unnecessary- to live in a world where everything’s multicultural and no one’s underrepresented, marginalized, ignored. But I think we’re still quite a few years away from that…

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