Is it time to reimagine the traditional teachings of Black History Month?
For the next 28 days, the nation will celebrate Black History Month. In most schools, this is the only time that highlights a host of Black American icons on the most surface level. There's no space for a more complex exploration of our legacy, which includes the likes of Dr. Martin Luther King who is often portrayed as a “dreamer.” The curriculum rarely explores the nuances of Dr. King, such as his childhood suicide attempts and his battle with depression, both ailments that are rapidly increasing in our community according to the report, “Ring the Alarm: The Crisis of Black Youth Suicide in America.” In worst-case scenarios, Black history is presented simply as a list of facts and by the time we reach March 1, history class is back to the narrow and flawed framework of the Black experience. Understanding the importance of Black History Month means revisiting its roots and understanding the need for its continued importance, even as political forces are currently trying to tear it down.
The Origin of Black History Month
Negro History Week was established in February 1926 by renowned historian Carter G. Woodson and his colleagues who founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASALH). This acknowledgment of Black excellence was celebrated during the second week of February in part due to the birthdates of President Lincoln and one of the most photographed men of the 19th century, abolitionist Frederick Douglass, born in February 1818. For years after, Negro History Week was recognized with annual proclamations and celebrations across the nation.
During the civil rights movement of the 1960s, many colleges began to celebrate Black History during the entire month of February. In 1976, the country’s bicentennial, ASALH officially expanded the annual festivities to a month and ultimately, due to student pressure, was followed by acknowledgments by Presidents Ford, Carter and Reagan.
On February 11, 1986, Congress passed Public Law 99-244, establishing the second month of the year as National Black (Afro-American) History Month. During his tenure, President Clinton recognized February as National African American History Month and annually, our commanders-in-chief issue an annual proclamation. The ASALH is still thriving today and, following in the tradition of its founder, has established a theme for Black history every year.
2023: The Year of “Black Resistance”
The ASALH has declared 2023 the year of “Black Resistance” to celebrate our historic fight against all forms of oppression including lynching, police brutality, redlining, separate but unequal schools, and inadequate health care, to name a few.
That doesn't mean it's a call to “cancel” Black History Month due to a fear of losing our historical foundation, but instead build even more firmly atop of it. Dr. Karl Johnson, chair and co-convenor of the Africana Studies program at Ramapo College of New Jersey agrees.
“African American History Month is American History and has been vital to the progress of this nation. The 13th,14th and 15th Amendments of the Constitution passed originally for African Americans after the Civil War is now utilized by all Americans to protect civil rights and freedoms,” he declares. "Additionally, more than ever, evidenced-based history is under attack. It is important we begin to move away from the myths and stereotypes from the past to continue to progress and become even more inclusive.”
The current movement in this country to erase America’s blatant history of institutionalized racism makes the cultural concept formulated by the ASALH in 1926 more important now than ever. Historian Dr. Edward Wilson shares, “not only is Black History Month relevant, but it is equally relevant that we as a community must not allow Dr. Woodson’s vision to become a novelty in a superficial sense and continue to be ever vigilant on correcting the social nuances that created its need. Only then will America be able to make good on what Dr. King labeled the 'bad check' owed to Black America."
We must continue to celebrate and learn from our rich history. Beyond the month of February, the other 337 days should be filled with pride and the awareness that we are making Black history daily.
Sustaining The Message
The reality of our segregated approach to Black history and American history highlights the deficits in our educational system that need to be reimagined. Sadly, if not for Black History month, many school districts would not have any recognition of our many contributions to the world.
Grade School Educator Duane Philips reflecting on his childhood experiences shares, “Celebrating Black History Month as a youth provided me with a sense of pride in who I was and the journey of my people on this land. That sense of pride allowed me to feel no matter what the odds were, I could set goals and achieve them. Black History Month instilled the mindset that I have to achieve in spite of any obstacles.”
Here are three ways to make celebrating our legacy a daily practice
- To continue to celebrate our history outside of the classroom, dating back to the beginning of civilization ensuring our children know their African lineage.
- To continue the constant discovery of new facts and proof of our many contributions to our global society, like The 1619 Project and Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America have done.
- To continue to share oral history to ensure the nuanced perspective can be passed down from generation to generation. We must be thankful for all our ancestors who fought for the many freedoms and privileges we have today.
In short, Black History Month should start on February 1 and should end on January 31!
History is informative and instructive and can provide the steps for improving our communities and instilling pride and a sense of purpose in our youth. We are truly our ancestors’ wildest dreams and will one day become the ancestors and the historical blueprint for the next generation.
Dr. Daniel Jean is an international educator, consultant, playwright and poet @Wordstravel