What black history is — and what it is not

Thursday , February 08, 2018 - 4:00 AM1 comment

ADRIENNE ANDREWS, special to the Standard-Examiner

In 1926, historian Carter G. Woodson and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History launched “Negro History Week.” It was scheduled for the second week of February because of the birthdays of two men celebrated by black communities since the late 1800s — Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, born Feb. 12 and 14, respectively. Initial activities centered on curriculum in public schools that would focus on black history in the United States.

With time, Negro History Week gained traction in educational and community settings as school districts developed curriculum guides and local leaders endorsed it as a holiday. It wasn’t until 1969 that black educators and the Black United Students at Kent State University proposed Black History Month, which would occur on their campus one year later. Within six years, Black History Month was celebrated broadly. During the United States Bicentennial in 1976, President Gerald Ford officially recognized Black History Month. Since then, as a nation, we have celebrated the history, culture and contribution of blacks and African-Americans.

Critiques of Black History Month question its usefulness and fairness. Does a single month of inclusion erase a history of oppression and exclusion? Why not integrate black history into mainstream education all year long? And what about black history is shared — is slavery the only focus? Should athletes and actors symbolize the face of possibility? Of course, there is the position that Black History Month or any other cultural heritage month is inherently racist.

To these critiques, I say, no. Black History Month does not erase a history of oppression and exclusion. It does, however, provide space to examine what has been excluded not only from our textbooks, but from our conversations and lived realities. Should we integrate black history into mainstream education? Absolutely. But in the more than 40 years we have celebrated Black History Month, it has not happened. Not for black and African-American people, not for native peoples, not for Hispanic and Latinx or Asian people. The need for Black History Month remains because inclusion during the rest of the year has not come to pass.

And what of the content of the month itself? It can and should have a foundation in the historical origins of this nation. Slavery did not invent itself. Africans did not arrive here of our own volition. We arrived in chains. We were sold. We were dehumanized. We were separated from our families. We were beaten. We were raped. We were lynched. We suffered (and continue to suffer) through white supremacy not only by way of groups like the Klu Klux Klan but in terms of institutions and structures that determine where we live, work and learn. In order to celebrate, honor and recognize the history, culture and contributions of a people, we must look into all corners of living and uncover the history that exists. That will improve us all.

We need Black History Month because as a society, what hurts black, African and African-American people hurts us all. We need to examine disparities in education, income, employment, housing and criminal justice. Systems and institutions (both current and historical) shape life trajectories. If we understand institutions and structures from the past, we can better understand and change outcomes in the future. We need Black History month because we do not recognize, honor and validate the role and impact of blacks, Africans and African-Americans and our economic, cultural and political engagement. We need Black History Month because it challenges us to do work that we normally do not do: the self-reflection and analysis of our contribution to the marginalization of black, African and African-American people. Based on that reflection and analysis, we must then determine how we are willing change those beliefs and behaviors in order to become truly inclusive.

Black History Month is a time for us all to recommit to doing better, being better and learning more. Until we do this consistently, and until we do this outside the month of February, we will continue to need Black History Month.

Adrienne G. Andrews is the Assistant Vice President for Diversity at Weber State University. Twitter: @AdieAndrewsCDO.

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