Why Black History Month?

By Ted Gatlin

Close your eyes and imagine a country where black cultural identity flowered intellectually and artistically.

The literature, music, and fashion that was created defined culture and “cool” for everyone in America and around the world. A country where some of the most significant contributors were intellectuals; electrifying performers; writers and poets; visual artists; legendary musicians; and business owners.

This time you are imagining actually happened about 100 years ago, during what was called the Harlem Renaissance – the period between 1919 and 1933.

Black Greek letter organizations had been around for more than 10 years. Organizations such as the Urban League and NAACP had begun to put down real roots. This cultural explosion was ripe for revolutionary ideas, and on Feb. 7, 1926, Carter G. Woodson and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (now Association for the Study of African American Life and History) or ASALH kicked off the first Negro History Week in the states of North Carolina, Delaware, and West Virginia as well as the city school administrations of Baltimore and Washington.

Carter G. Woodson
Woodson saw this as “one of the most fortunate steps ever taken by the Association.”

Carter G. and his colleagues had the same issue that author James Baldwin articulated years later when he said, “When I was going to school, I began to be bugged by the teaching of American history because it seemed that history had been taught without cognizance of my presence.”

How troubling is it that you can sit in a classroom and be taught history without a real integration of your own people, who have been on the planet since the literal beginning of time? Negro History Week attempted to right those wrongs.

Forty years later, the Civil Rights Movement and Freedom Schools in the South embraced the week and its curriculum as a way to contribute to the mission. Still, the most popular textbook for eighth-grade U.S. history classes mentioned only two black people in 100 years since the Civil War.

It wasn’t until 1970 that the first celebration of Black History Month took place, at Kent State, and 1976 when then-President Gerald Ford decreed Black History Month a national observance. 

Like most issues regarding equitable practices in the United States, there is a thought by most of the country that we can and should find a silver bullet to solve the issues. True equity is a lot more messy and deliberate.

In the attempt to solve the issue of representation with a month of celebration, recognition and importance, there have been unintended consequences. One is reducing complex historical figures to overly simplified objects of hero worship.

This, for me, was shown by a simple activity presented by Kyla, an after-school instructor for K-8th grade students in north St. Louis County. When she asked the students to give a name of an influential black person, eager hands went up all around the room; however, when one student mentioned the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., several other hands dropped, indicating that those students had the same answer in mind.

This shows how we have continued to teach black history by focusing on certain historical figures instead of the full history of black people in its breadth and depth. Students need to learn the breadth of the entire diaspora and the depth of the entire history, not just the history on U.S. soil that begins with slavery. 

So how do we make Black History Month more effective?

First, we should focus on understanding the fullness of black history.

For instance, did you know about the ancient kingdom known as Ta Seti, which existed in what is today Nubia in Sudan? Also, that Kemet (now called Egypt) is credited with giving rise to many scientific developments such as engineering, mathematics, architecture and medicine as well as important early political developments such as state formation and monarchy?

Economic and political development, as well as scientific development was, during this early period, perhaps more advanced in Africa than in other continents.

This can be determined by doing a deeper dive into the real history of black people across the globe. This would in turn help us learn that black people are found on every continent of the world, and many of the traditions the cultures have created have their roots in an African one. 

Second, to make Black History Month more effective, we have to be more cognizant of how our present is becoming history right before our eyes.

Think of it: The uprisings in Ferguson back in 2014 are history now. Those people who participated in marches, stood on lines, got arrested and overall fought back against tyranny are now part of the historical telling of this time in black history.

In various places in Africa, a griot is the person tasked with remembering and telling the stories of their village, community or tribe to those who come after. We should all task ourselves with not only remembering, but writing and archiving these stories of now.

These stories have to be told from the point of view of those who are experiencing it. If not, history will repeat itself, and we will be relegated to attempting to fight and repeal a history written by someone else. 

Last, to make Black History Month more effective, we must teach our children.

I made a social media post about this article, and many spoke about the need to teach young people history at home, not rely on the schools to do it during one month a year. This I am in total agreement with.

I also understand that schools are important. Woodson wanted black history to be taught in schools. What we need is more of an integration of black history within the fullness of the curriculum.

bell hooks
Our children shouldn’t need to wait until February to read or hear about bell hooks, they shouldn’t be learning about King if they aren’t also learning about all the women, children and other men who put themselves on the line for the same rights.

We should not teach our children that slaves were brought from Africa, as the beginning of their learning about black history in schools. They should understand that people – artisans, mathematicians, poets, business owners, royalty, mothers, fathers, and children – were brought from Africa, and only became slaves once in America. 

This year’s ASALH theme for Black History Month is “African Americans and the Vote.” This year, 2020, an important general election year, is also a landmark year for voting rights. It marks the 150th anniversary of the Fifteenth Amendment (1870), which gave black men the right to vote, after the Civil War. (If you didn’t know that there is a theme every year, check ASALH’s website – asalh.org – to learn more.)

This theme is appropriate because of the ramifications of civic engagement this year. With the Census, a crowded presidential election field and the many congressional and local elections taking place, this is the year to exercise and educate your vote.

No time like Black History Month to make it happen.

So this month, while you dig for knowledge about your own and our collective black history in its fullness, please also take time to appreciate and acknowledge your own black present and support, build and honor our children, our black future. 

– Ted Gatlin is a youth development professional, political activist, public speaker, curriculum designer, radio personality and the founder and lead consultant of Unlimited Results Experiential Training & Development LLC.

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