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Choosing between ‘history’ and ‘heritage’ months

  • Yue Ben / Senior Staff Photographer
    HERITAGE HISTORIANS | Dorothy He (left) and Wen Lin Xun, both CC ’15 and co-chairs of this year's Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, said that while they see the merits of changing the month's name to “history,” they believe “heritage” is more inclusive.

 What is the difference between a “history month” and a “heritage month”?

This year’s Black Heritage Month became Black History Month, a move that organizers said reflected the power and specificity of the word “history.” Asian Pacific American Heritage Month in April remains a “heritage month,” which its organizers say is more inclusive of both culturally and historically oriented events.

At Columbia, the Office of Multicultural Affairs oversees the planning of five history and awareness months: Queer Awareness Month, Latino(a) Heritage Month, Native American Heritage Month, Black History Month, and APAHM. With the exception of Queer Awareness Month and Black History Month, all are called “heritage” rather than “history” months.

Gary Okihiro, professor of international and public affairs and former director of the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race, said that heritage—which is defined as culture—is not the same as history, and the words chosen to describe these months are important to consider. 

Shondrea Thornthon, CC ’15 and political/education co-chair of this year’s Black History Month, said that while “heritage” implies something that everyone can partake in, the word “history” has power in its specificity. 

“History is something that, in the case of our people, is very political, very impactful, and it’s something that bares a truth. Heritage is very much, you know, the dinner at John Jay where they cook foods of the diaspora. History is Assata Shakur being on the U.S. terrorist list, and what do we do with that?” Thornton said. “Heritage is the happier, cultural parts and history is the work.”

While Wen Lin Xun and Dorothy He, both CC ’15 and co-chairs of this year’s APAHM, said that they see the merits of changing the name of the month to “history,” they both believe that heritage is inherently more inclusive, and that it does not necessarily exist in opposition to history.

“As a committee, we have thought about the meaning of each one of those words, A-P-A-H-M. We have definitely thought about the meaning of heritage to us. I think history is a part of the heritage that we have. Heritage, in itself, I think is more inclusive,” Xun said.

While APAHM features several panel discussions about Asian-American identity, the majority of the events listed for the month are culturally based, like the Lantern Festival and Food and Culture, which is a discussion about culture as it is celebrated in food. 

Xun and He, however, said that history is embedded in these cultural events.

“There is definitely a cultural aspect to the events we have planned, but I wouldn’t take history and culture apart. I think it’s part of it. I don’t see how it’s completely separate. A lantern festival is a cultural event, but it has history to that culture,” Xun said. 

Through cultural context, Xun added, students are able to discuss the historical implications of these changes.

“We try to apply things in the modern context. Just to look at how food and festivals have changed when they came into contact with other cultures, and now that they’re being celebrated in the U.S., how has that changed? How has the meaning of being Asian or Asian American changed?” He said.

Okihiro said that APAHM provides an opportunity for education, and rather than just having cultural celebrations, he recommends that the organizers encourage more critical discourse in the events planned for the month. 

“By displaying Asian culture, which is valuable, I think it just simply reinforces the idea that Asians are immigrants. And those Asians who are immigrants in fact don’t have an appreciation for their history in this country, not only about Asians but also about African Americans, and how their struggles are linked to our presence today in this country,” Okihiro said.

Carter Woodson, a noted black author and historian known as the “Father of Black History,” championed the creation of Negro History Week in 1926 to address the lack of black narratives in the dominant discourse and to educate people about black history.

“He, Carter Woodson, noticed the absence of African Americans within the narratives of the nation,” Okihiro said in an interview on Thursday. “He wanted that absence addressed, first for African Americans themselves to understand their own history and culture, but also the rest of America to recognize that African Americans are legitimate members and citizens of this nation and that their contributions are central to the Constitution of the nation.”

Okihiro said that APAHM, whether with “history” or “heritage” in the name, has a direct lineage with Woodson’s vision for Negro History Week.

“This anchoring of one’s self within the nation is especially important for Asians and Latinos and the reason is that we are seen as immigrants. It is true that the majority of Asians today are immigrants, but it’s false that Asians are recent visitors to these shores. Our history, meaning Asia and America, are intertwined since at least the 15th century, when America was first ‘discovered’ by Europeans,” Okihiro said. 

Xun and He said that Okihiro’s remarks at the APAHM opening ceremony gave them a lot to think about in terms of the meaning of the word heritage, but they are not ready to change the name of the month just yet. 

“History is definitely one aspect of heritage. History is already including heritage, so if we were to change it, I would need to listen to more opinions from people about a more historically focused month,” Xun said. 

Thornton said that while she recommends the name change for other planning committees, she knows it is a conversation they need to have within their own communities. She said that changing Black Heritage Month to Black History Month made sense, especially since this year marked the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

“We felt that in order to even begin processing the gains and losses that we’ve had these past 50 years, we would have to talk about our history and place ourselves in it,” she said.

Thornton said that her mother was seven years old when the Civil Rights Act was passed, and she is forever connected to that history. 

“My mother was seven before she was considered a citizen of the United States. Like, that’s my mom. She gave birth to me and raised me. I am so connected to that history, but I’m further off from the little fluffy things, like drums or cowrie shells or dances. I am very far from that, but I am closer to the Civil Rights Act because of history and how it plays out in this country,” she said. “This year, post-Trayvon Martin, post-Civil Rights Act, post-Voting Rights Act, and the gutting that took place over the summer, we really wanted to make that claim, and draw that connection. We knew that heritage was simply too weak to do that.”  |  @TraceyDWang

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated Shondrea Thornthon's title as co-chair of Black History Month. She was the political/education co-chair. Spectator regrets the error.


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Anonymous posted on

Ugh how long before the PC police start banning these words, too?

Anonymous posted on

Ugh how long before the PC police start banning these words, too?

Karim posted on

Thornton believes "heritage is something everyone can partake in," and the article frames this as a negative thing. Is Black History Month supposed to be insular and exclusive? Is this a move to make sure non-black people cannot participate in Black History Month events? Or are we allowed, only so long as we admire from afar? I'm not sure if it's the way the article is written or Thornton actually thinks this way, but if she does, it's all the worst parts of identity politics at play.

I was also taken aback by the idea that the word "heritage" means little more than "the dinner at John Jay where they cook foods of the diaspora." First, that this is an overt spit in the face over heritage groups that view what they're doing as more powerful than a call for free food.

If you want people to recognize struggle, and to join in your cause to effect positive change, you don't contrive dichotomies of "happy" versus "real," and politics versus culture. And you don't do it by setting yourself apart, making yourself unrelatable, attacking and ridiculing other cultures and cultural groups, and altogether making yourself unlikeable as some kind of self-fulfilling prophecy that, "See? Nobody cares about us."

Shondrea Thornton posted on

As I previously commented, I feel the decision is sensitive for other groups and will require a deeper conversation among their constituencies. For BHM, this was our unanimous thought and it was very very well received. If you'd like to know more about BHM, the choices we made, and a more detailed explanation why, however, you are free to email me.

Anonymous posted on

Wow! So consequential!

Did these word choices make you feel better?

I really hope you debated these word choices in a safe space.