It’s been that way from the start.
The legendary historian Carter G. Woodson first proposed “Negro History Week” back in 1926. The son of African-Americans once held as chattel slaves, he hoped to educate Americans about the accomplishments of African-Americans and, in turn, address racial prejudice.
“If a race has no history,” Woodson declared at the time, “if it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world.”
At the time the celebration began, black Americans were widely viewed as inferior human beings, who had made no meaningful accomplishments. As long as this idea could be perpetuated in the culture and taught in the school systems of the country, it was easier for the nation, as a whole, to treat black Americans like second-class citizens. It was also easier for some black Americans to accept their second-class treatment if they, too, believed they were inferior.
This is why Woodson’s decision to establish the celebration, and his determination to make it last, was so important to the history of the nation.
In 1976, the United States recognized and celebrated the first Black History Month during the nation’s bicentennial. President Ford issued a proclamation stating that it was an opportunity for the nation “to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”
Now it is customary for the president, the national media and many public and private school systems to pause to recognize African-American History Month. School programs saluting African-Americans are the norm; educational programs on public television are commonplace.
But some people, including African-Americans, question the continued need for Black History Month. And others worry that it has been diluted and tokenized.
“The cynicism of our age has taken Black History Month far from the idealism of its founder,” the novelist Tayari Jones wrote recently in The Believer magazine. “If February is Black History Month, is the rest of the calendar reserved for white people?”
The answer is no. We celebrate the achievements of African-Americans, no matter the month, as Martin Luther King’s January holiday demonstrates.
What’s more, Black History Month allows us to focus on the central role the African-American experience has played in our nation’s history: from slavery to the Civil War to Reconstruction and Jim Crow and then to the civil-rights movement right up to today with Sen. Barack Obama’s presidential campaign.
And the arc of that history represents the highest aspirations of our nation’s creed: freedom, opportunity and equality under the law.
Black History Month is a celebration that must continue because there is still so much for all Americans to know and learn. It tells us who we are as a nation, and what we were not so long ago and where we’re hopefully heading.
Brian Gilmore is a Washington D.C. based poet and lawyer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.