Black History Month is upon us once again, and with it comes a parade of facts to enlighten the nation on the contributions blacks have made to America. There will be children reciting famous lines from "I Have A Dream," high school students writing about George Washington Carver and his peanuts and probably some game shows questions on African-American inventors. Once March arrives, the nation will collectively pat itself on the back for having done its due diligence in paying homage to a few heroic black figures.
If this is all that happens, then the month has been for naught.
The rote recitation of black achievements is an abridged version of a rich history presented as a sloppily composed slide presentation. Facts are important, of course, but they are wholly insufficient. If this is indeed the extent of the celebration, we will have missed another opportunity to bring the black American experience to life and render from it its true, intrinsic value.
The current aim of Black History Month should not be the construction of a mere timeline of events and personas. Instead, it should be to explore the many and varied journeys of our black citizens today. This approach will inherently intersect with the seminal moments in black history while also providing an accompanying personal narrative that commands a deeper appreciation. In this way, facts in textbooks leap off the page and become life-changing inspirations more accessible to all Americans.
National African American History Month began in 1926 as Negro History Week by historian Dr. Carter G. Woodson. A week in February was chosen because it housed the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. Eventually, due to popularity, it was expanded to the entire month. In addition to the goal of educating the American populace, renowned historian Allen Ballard wrote that its purpose was to give blacks "an intellectual and emotional anchor in the midst of overt racism, legal segregation and the attendant myths of white superiority."
If it was initially an anchor, it should now be a vessel; one that sets sails and takes the country on a journey through the troubled waters of the African-American experience.
In the early years, it made sense for the celebration to be a simple introduction to the black characters and achievements left out of white and black segregated classrooms. But since then, the remembrance has not evolved with society's progress. The month still has the feel of a series of "did you know" trivia questions with little context or exploration of its deeper meaning. History is a quest, not a list of dates and names.
Besides, as others have noted, there is simply no extracting black history from American history. For example, why must we wait until February to talk about Carver's development of crop rotation methods that tremendously increased yields and continues to be central to the farming industry? This fact is integral to any serious discussion about the American agrarian capitalism that predated the Industrial Revolution and still persists in today's agribusiness.
Carver did not make contributions solely intended for black America; he was a black man who made contributions to all of America. Let's discuss his path instead of relegating him to the peanut gallery. There may be interest in the fact, but there is power in the story.
This isn't an abstract concept; it's personal. Black History Month taught me that Booker T. Washington was the first black man to have dinner with the President at the White House. Interesting, sure. But the more compelling context is that the event touched my great-grandparents and forged my family's path for the next century when they named their son after the president, Theodore Roosevelt. Through lynchings, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights Movement, black power and the mainstreaming of black celebrity, this latest chapter in our story concluded with my dinner with the first black president of the United States.
Black history is this sort of century-long journey that evinces the faith of a family, even when it presents harsh realities. While the above may sound especially American, the forced immigration of my male African ancestor to this land and the forced removal of my female Native American ancestor from this land is equally American. This month should focus on the exploration of these hard truths.
My story isn't special. The exceptionality of the black experience is common. Our country's black citizens have incredible stories of resilience and belief in the American dream that are worthy of national focus. Every single one of them.
The White House will once again make a national proclamation that formally designates February as the month to focus on the history of black Americans. This year, and for years to come, we should all explore our own stories and share them with the world. This is the best way to appreciate the unique African-American journey and celebrate Black History Month.
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