Black History Matters
by Shay McHale | published Feb. 2nd, 2018
Black History Month is a time when some of America gathers to look at the culture and history of black people, as a way to appease the fact that most of Black history is excluded from “regular” history. This month takes all that black people have done for this country, wraps it up in the tiniest box of the year and when it is over, just like all the Christmas presents that have lived out their month of being interesting, is cast aside. Even now, we still see a push to further exclude the issues and events of Black history in textbooks. This month should not segregate all of Black history into a single month, but instead educate everyone on what is currently lacking from our view of history.
The History of Black History
The origin of Black History Month dates back to the 1920s, with the creation of Negro History and Literature Week by Carter G. Woodson. He wanted it to be a month to celebrate and promote achievements by black Americans. It was held during the second week of February so that it would coincide with both Frederick Douglass’ and Abraham Lincoln’s birthdays. It drew widespread attention, especially with the influx of African Americans to big cities during the urbanization period after World War I.
For decades, this week promoted the ideals of celebrating all that had been accomplished by black people in this country, and numerous clubs sprung up to further study their past achievements. During the Civil Rights Movement, the push for more attention drove many college campuses to celebrate for the entire month of February, and in 1976, President Gerald Ford recognized this celebration, asking America to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”
Even before he died in 1950, Woodson had been pushing for expansions like this, because this history was too important to fit into any limited timeframe, hoping that one day an annual celebration would no longer be necessary.
“Black people have long been a part of shaping how people live and positively contributing to their communities. Indeed, this is all worth celebrating daily,” said Sharitta Gross-Smith, the assistant director of programmatic initiatives and development at the Multicultural Center for Academic Success (MCAS).
“However, since school textbooks often select what parts of history are taught, Black History Month often facilitates not only celebrating those heroes, she-roes and inventors that are known, but also those who are lesser known,” Gross-Smith said.
Textbooks have long since been the biggest reason why Black History Month is needed because without a month to focus on the struggles and lives of black people in our history, it is often pushed aside or whitewashed. Even in recent history, we have seen multiple examples of schools and companies trying to downplay things like the Civil War, which was apparently caused by sectionalism, states’ rights, then slavery — in that order.
This month is ultimately derived from a history that is full of oppression and struggling to be heard, but it is not all that should be looked at. The history and achievements of black people do not begin with Harriet Tubman or the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. New York Daily News Columnist and Black Lives Matter activist Shaun King wrote that “thousands of years before American slavery, African kingdoms like the Axum Empire ruled. Other rich civilizations like the Ghana or Songhai empires have so much to tell that they alone could fill Black History Month.”
King goes on to discuss how the way that Black History Month looks at history can be damaging in how it portrays black people as constantly subjugated. The point of the month is to recognize that suffering happened, but even in over 250 years of slavery, it must not outweigh the accomplishments in the 150 years since, nor the thousands of years prior.
Why We Need a Month
Especially in the current political climate, Black History Month is vital to truly understanding history, and normalizing the achievements of black people.
“I wish that we lived in a society where Black people being engineers, inventors, educators, entrepreneurs, political leaders, doctors, geniuses that are accepted into Ivy league colleges and all that lies in between was not an anomaly,” Gross-Smith said.
In the modern culture, many achievements of black people are attributed to the system being rigged. When a black student is accepted into a top school, it’s because of affirmative action. When he is elected president, it is because of voter fraud. This is another area where Black History Month matters because it shows that this is not a system in which black people can only succeed by cheating their way ahead.
“There are so many things that would not exist without Black inventors,from both practical to fun things,” Gross-Smith said.
The list of inventions by black creators ranges from automatic shoemakers to Super Soakers to street lights and beyond. The 300 uses for peanuts that George Washington Carver discovered turned the simple nut into the South’s second largest cash crop. So many things that we take for granted today were invented by black people, and it is something that too often goes unnoticed.
Some inventions in history we simply cannot untie from their inventors, such as Edison and the lightbulb, but when looking to black inventors, it is only during Black History Month that their achievements receive the recognition they deserve. This is one of the most important reasons for this month, but it highlights one of the biggest issues. Black history is not given the same attention that white history is, and that is no mistake.
The power structures of the Western world have, for hundreds of years, placed white people above others, and so much of history has been only recorded and retold through white eyes. Even in modern times, where white people do not have the monopoly on power that they once did, history is a battleground between the popular accounts and those that include more information from perspectives that were previously ignored.
It cannot be ignored that white history takes priority at present, even in nationwide curriculum like the AP tests. I can personally verify that much of the material focuses solely on the achievements of white people — the only mention of people of color being how they helped, not always mentioning how voluntary that “help” was.
Black History Month seeks to equalize this, and ultimately, it would be nice to not have to focus on black history; rather, it would be fully incorporated into how we look at history. So yes, All History Matters, but right now it is most important to look at the past through the black experience because we miss so much when we do not.
Black History Month has been a part of American culture for decades, and every February it comes and goes so quickly. The biggest issue with this whole concept is that once the month is over, the focus shifts back to “regular” history. Black History Month is meant to be a stepping stone, not a lens. As a nation, we need to look at Black History Month as a way to spark interest in culture, figures and achievements that should endure the whole year and simply become integrated into how we see history.
In the end, the simplest way to look at Black History Month is that it is a month entirely dedicated to making itself irrelevant. The whole point is to recognize that black history should not and cannot be looked at as separate from the rest of history, nor can history be complete without all that black people have contributed to it.
Black History Month is important. Ideally, we would not have to celebrate it separately. But until black history is celebrated with all history, it is all the more important to look at what it stands for and appreciate all that it highlights, both in February and throughout the entire year.