Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Corner:
Black History Month
In February, we celebrate Black History Month! Observance of Black History Month began in 1926 as Negro History Week, when the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) formerly Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH), decided to sponsor Black History Week as a way to recognize the accomplishments of Black Americans. Historian Carter Goodwin who helped found the ASNLH with minister Jesse E Moreland is considered “the Father of Black History.” They chose the second week of February to coincide with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.
The Civil Rights movement in the late 60s helped promote Black Identity, and soon pushed for a movement beginning on college campuses to expand the week to a month with Gerald Ford eventually declaring the first official Black History Month in 1976.
Why is it important to celebrate Black History Month? History books especially school textbooks have always been dominated by the history of white Americans. These histories have often discussed Black Americans only tangentially, and even then often only as victims of chattel slavery. These histories then typically don’t talk about the experiences of Black Americans again during most of the next century, when it’s time to discuss the Civil Rights movement. This has caused many students to poorly understand the connection between the end of Reconstruction, with its unfinished safeguarding of Black American rights, with the need for a Civil Rights movement.
The narrow focus of traditional history textbooks also implies that Black Americans have only been passive participants in the nation’s history, living on the margins. The reality is quite different. So much of the country’s economic foundation was built through the work of enslaved African Americans, and then by African Americans working as tenant laborers. Black Americans, even while still dealing with racism, contributed to historical knowledge, such as in the pioneering work of W.E.B. DuBois, and science, as in the work of Doctor Daniel Hale Williams, who performed the first successful open heart surgery.
The Harlem Renaissance, a consequence in part of the early 20th century Great Migration of Black Americans from the Jim Crow South to Northern cities, had far reaching impacts on literature through the work of Zora Neal Hurston, Langston Hughes and others, and on the invention and rapid development of the uniquely American music of jazz. The impact of Black American musical innovators like Billie Holiday, Miles Davis and John Coltrane on everything that followed cannot be overstated. Rhythm & blues (which helped birth rock & roll), soul, and hip-hop are some of the other major contributions of Black Americans to America’s unique musical culture.
Perhaps one of the most enduring contributions of Black Americans, including and especially Black women, has been to social justice and human rights. Activists like Rosa Parks, whose activism neither started nor stopped with her fateful decision on that Montgomery bus, led a movement that eventually expanded to fuel campaigns not only for Black American rights, but for women’s rights, labor rights and marriage equality. In a very substantial way, America has fulfilled some of its promises because of their work and sacrifices.
As we celebrate Black History Month this year, let’s focus on Black Resistance and perseverance despite overwhelming odds, on the mission to remember that Black History is American history, and recognize the ongoing contributions of Black Americans to America’s future.