Black History Month: Still Critical, Still Relevant
February 14, 2022 Written by Regina S. Wright, Associate Dean for Diversity & Inclusion | Photo by Kathy F. Atkinson
Black History Month, also known as African American History Month, can be traced back to Carter G. Woodson (1875-1950), an African American historian, author, journalist, and the founder of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH). Recognized as one of the first scholars of African American history, Carter G. Woodson launched Negro History Week at Howard University in 1926. In 1969, Black educators and students at Kent State University proposed the commemoration of Black History Month, which took place a year later in 1970. Six years later, President Gerald Ford recognized Black History Month as an event to honor the often-neglected accomplishments of Black Americans throughout U.S. history. Today, Black History Month is not only celebrated in the U.S., but has been adopted by Canada, Ireland, and the United Kingdom. In its current form, it is largely focused on recognizing and celebrating important people and events in the history of the African diaspora.
Critics of Black History Month have argued that there should not be a focus on Black history during February alone, but that the value of Black Americans and their accomplishments should be celebrated and ingrained into historical accounts all year round. Others have criticized the celebration as unnecessary in a post-slavery/post-Jim Crow/post-civil rights era. While these criticisms may have some merits, I would argue that commemorating Black History Month is a critical and still relevant endeavor for at least three reasons:
1. The achievement of excellence, amid racial adversity, is worthy of celebration.
Black Americans who have achieved excellence in the U.S. have overcome tremendous barriers to adequate education, employment, financial success, and health. In 2022, there are countless examples of Black Americans being underrepresented in the best schools and professional positions, being denied or limited in accessing the best financial options for building generational wealth and suffering poorer health outcomes due to health and healthcare disparities. Structural racism continues to disenfranchise Black Americans in many ways, but despite these injustices, they have soared to great heights as social justice pioneers, scientists, healthcare providers, inventors, politicians, leaders of Fortune 500 companies, and other roles that greatly impact society. These victories must be celebrated.
2. The accomplishments of Black Americans have not been infused into our curricula in a comprehensive way.
While there is currently much debate about critical race theory and/or lenses through which Black American history can or should be viewed, as practitioners and supporters of education, we are obligated to consider American history as an integration of the experiences of people of various identities and give ample treatment to all who contributed to building and growing our great nation. While U.S. history is complex and sometimes painful to revisit, including Black Americans and their achievements in the story of our nation can help us to learn from past errors and appreciate those who are different from us. Until our learning tools reflect sufficient coverage of Black Americans and other minority groups, we must continue to elevate Black History Month as a unique period of learning and reflection.
3. Black children need to see models of greatness that look like them and see them celebrated, especially where exceptional role models are not easily accessible.
Far too many children in the U.S. live in impoverished and unsafe communities, and, these communities are often communities of color. For these children, successful role models may not exist outside of school, where educators and administrators fill these voids. For many, learning about Black Americans who were the architects of the civil rights movement, athletes who’ve broken racial barriers, children who’ve desegregated schools, and great scientists and inventors who’ve advanced science and technology, is the impetus for looking beyond their circumstances and believing that excellence is achievable. Witnessing excellence among figures who they can relate to culturally and physically is critical for planting seeds of greatness in Black children.
During this and every Black History Month, I implore you to learn more about the courageous Black Americans who have made a difference in the U.S. and throughout the world. Consider how you can shine light on their excellent achievements in your classrooms and at home and support and promote Black Americans within the spaces you reside. These small steps can help chip away at the racial adversity that threatens excellence for everyone in our society.