Photo: Public Affairs
Because it’s about more than Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
There’s a tendency to distil history into soundbites, statistics, and generalizations. In doing so, we neglect the underlying humanity. We oversimplify people the same way, particularly if they’re iconic figures. No doubt you will see and hear Dr. King, Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks and many other prominent figures spotlighted every February, but it would be good to remember that these were dynamic men and women — they were so much more than their pivotal act(s). Likewise, there are countless women and men who we don’t hear enough about, like Septima Poinsette Clark, who was responsible for developing literacy and citizenship workshops during the Civil Rights Movement. Or Diane Nash, who facilitated many of the student efforts within the Movement. There’s also Fannie Lou Hamer, George Washington Carver, and Carter G. Woodson. Woodsen is even considered the ‘father of Black History Month’ himself and yet his name still hasn’t reached household status.
And still, there are so many others whose names we may never know, yet their stories and contributions are equally impactful. For me, Black History is about celebrating the leaders we know, learning about the ones we don’t and showing gratitude for all their sacrifice and contributions.
Because it honors America’s Black founders.
We lionize our Founding Fathers for drafting a Constitution that encompasses our most sacred democratic principles. We tend to neglect, however, that these men did not build the nation all on their own. Sure, at times, we might acknowledge that there were ordinary citizens who helped build the U.S. outside of the known Constitution framers and Declaration of Independence signers — but what about the slaves?
I would contend that the African slaves in colonial America were an integral part of our nation’s founding as well. Slave labor had become so deeply tied to the 13 colonies’ overall economic prosperity (particularly for the five Southern-most colonies) that talks of abolishment would have jeopardized the unanimous coalition needed to usurp the British monarchy. We also rarely hear about the African-American patriots who fought in the Revolutionary War. These and other truths are unlikely to be covered in any textbook we’ve read because slavery and African-American contributions, in general, tend to get glazed over in the history taught to us in school. Which leads me to the next point…
Because out textbooks have failed us.
Black History Month provides a dedicated space to increase our knowledge and awareness of African-Americans’ profound and transformative impact on America. African-Americans’ history in this country is vast, yet we see very little of it conveyed in textbooks. School textbooks are often the primary source of our historical perspective, yet they’re often incomplete. In fact, historical accounts in textbooks can be biased, misleading and downright inaccurate.
Just look at publisher McGraw Hill’s recent controversy where they were caught red-handed sugar-coating the Atlantic Slave Trade by stating the following in their world geography textbook: “The Atlantic Slave Trade between the 1500s and 1800s brought millions of workers from Africa to the southern United States to work on agricultural plantations.”
“Workers?” No. The word they’re looking for is “slaves.”
Adding insult to injury, the statement was buried in a section on immigration. Immigration. In no way, shape or form was slavery immigration. Yet that was the implied assertion made to tens of thousands of students who read that book. This is just one of many instances where Black people’s indelible imprint on U.S. history is systematically revised to a point of virtual elimination.
Black History Month, on the other hand, provides an opportunity to discuss the wealth of facts, events, people and cultural perspectives left out of our textbooks. We can discuss the difference in philosophy between Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois. We can rediscover how jazz came to be. We can share the story of Henrietta Lacks. And we can learn what happened to the “Black Wall Street” of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Simply put, there’s a lot of history to unpack and leveraging Black History Month is a great way to see how multifaceted America’s identity really is.
Because Black History Month encourages much-needed contemplation.
Black History Month is one of the few times our country collectively pauses to reflect on race relations. We publicly scrutinize the current state of affairs and benchmark our progress, but I can’t help but think that many of us do our own private litmus tests to gauge how close we actually are to racial equality. Some people may try to assert that racism is a relic of the past, but when…
…we learn that Dylann Roof sat through a prayer meeting at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C. solely to murder black people; and
…we see video footage of certain Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity members at the University of Oklahoma happily singing a racist song on a bus; and
….we discover that Daniel Holtzclaw used his position as an Oklahoma City police officer to target poorer, mostly African-American women for rape and sexual assault because he felt that he could get away with it; and
….we watch students protest at the University of Missouri over racial incidents that seemed to never quite garner enough attention of the school’s administration; and so on ….we are all reminded that America’s struggle with racism, in its many forms, is ongoing.
When Americans experience repeated gut-checks like the ones noted above, and look at them in context to the struggles of our past, we are encouraged to reexamine the romantic notions of our democracy and reconcile how such hard-fought progress toward equality has failed to yield us a post-racist society.
Because justice isn’t color blind.
Month after month we see disturbing stories of unarmed black men, women and children being assaulted or killed by police officers, often under questionable circumstances and motives.
We have heard about Freddie Gray, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Rekia Boyd, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Samuel Dubose, Walter Scott, the Spring Valley High School incident, the McKinney, TX pool party incident, Marlene Pinnock, Floyd Dent, and many others. While the influx of policy brutality and unarmed killings may seem like a recent phenomenon to some, a brief look at our past would show you that there’s a long history of unchecked police brutality towards People of Color in this country. At a time when African-Americans disproportionately experience conscious and unconscious racial bias in policing and the criminal justice system, Black History Month gives us the ability to focus our awareness and take immediate action on these persisting issues.
Because it’s about self-affirmation.
Some people act as though celebrating Black History Month is a personal affront to them, but what they fail to realize is that this month is really about the self-affirmation of a people (still) systematically marginalized in their own country. Black History Month is an unapologetic celebration of African-Americans’ cultural heritage, contributions, and achievements despite all the continued struggles with racial inequality. In a time where negative imagery and representations of African-Americans are highlighted more than positive ones, this month is about helping to cultivate a sense of pride and self-worth within every African-American that is unshakeable in the face of adversity, injustice, and bigotry.
For a culture so tightly woven into the fabric of this country, African-Americans’ history and experiences are greatly under- and misrepresented. If collectively Americans are going to level up and dismantle the racist ideologies and practices that permeate our culture, we are going to have to do our homework and educate ourselves about all of our histories. Like the Greek poet Archilochus once said, “We don’t rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training.”