(Orlando Sentinel) What is the origin and purpose of Black History Month? Last week at a local restaurant, I sat next to a group of spunky and delightfully opinionated middle-aged white women who were enthralled in passionate discussion about the relevance of Black History Month.
I assume they meet regularly. I admit I was intrigued but tried very hard not to make eye contact. I received several courteous glances from the group, but I didn’t break ranks — my bagel was my solace. But like clockwork one of the women turned to me and gregariously said: What do you think?
I was the only black man in the joint and happened to be wearing a boubou, a type of West African clothing like a dashiki. I curiously smiled and thought to myself, what have they gotten themselves into?
Let me begin by telling you what Black History Month is not. It is not some cultural festivity reserved for black people. It is not a month-long affirmative action holiday for African Americans. Nor is it a 30-day shaming of white people for 400 years of enslavement and racial segregation.
It isn’t reparations. It is not a month of mourning for deceased black icons. The creation of Black History Month was a reaction to the widely held belief among white Americans in the early 20th century and prior that blacks made no significant or viable contribution to human civilization, let alone America.
The formal celebration of black history in the United States began in 1926 as “Negro History Week.” Carter G. Woodson, known as the “Father of Black History” and the second black to receive a Ph.D. from Harvard University after W.E.B. Dubois, selected the second week in February for Negro History Week because it marked the birthdays of two of the most influential figures in American politics: Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln.
Other significant events that took place in February make it an ideal time to reflect on and celebrate black history, including the birth of W.E.B. DuBois, the famed intellectual, civil rights and pan-Africanist leader and co-founder of the NAACP (Feb. 23, 1868); the passage in Congress of the 15th Amendment granting blacks the right to vote (Feb. 3, 1870); the taking of the oath of office of the first black U.S. senator, Hiram R. Revels, a Republican from Mississippi (Feb. 25, 1870); founding of the NAACP (Feb. 12, 1909); the historical civil rights lunch counter sit-in at the segregated Woolworth’s store in Greensboro, N.C. (Feb. 1, 1960), and the murder of Malcolm X (Feb. 21, 1965).
Black History Month affords us the opportunity to honor the monumental achievements of living pioneers and departed path-breakers from advocates and educators to innovators and discoverers. Black History Month provides all Americans with the opportunity to celebrate the rich culture, heritage, and achievements of blacks from Compton to Cairo and Brooklyn to Benin. Malcolm X said, “of all of our studies, history is best qualified to reward our research.” Studying black history is vital for African Americans and important for all Americans. When nearly everything that is taught in primary and secondary school excludes, denigrates and white washes black history and people, and nearly every movie, television show and children’s book discounts or excludes black actors, narratives and stories, all Americans are miseducated and indoctrinated into a disingenuous and warped history of African Americans that fortify scientific racism or racial inferiority and superiority doctrines. No group is more harmed by this than African Americans.
While it may be the shortest month of the year, Black History Month empowers us to examine the great contributions of black people to the America’s and human civilization generally, and forces us to study the critical role that other groups of people and nations have played in shaping Black History as liberators, allies and oppressors. When we study Black History, we study ourselves, our national history and heritage. No one group owns, controls or is entitled to celebrate Black History Month more than any other. It is the product of a shared legacy of tragedy and triumph that all Americans have a civic responsibility and duty to learn about, reflect upon, debate and share. We should never allow political correctness, convention, privilege, guilt, or perceived racial ownership interfere with our quest for knowledge and cross-cultural exchange, because to know black history is to know world history. What will you do to celebrate Black History Month?