February is Black History Month. It is a time to celebrate the accomplishments and heritage of black people in our nation. Its founder, historian Dr. Carter Godwin Woodson, along with his associate, Jesse E. Moorland, created the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (now the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, or ASALH) in 1915 to promote black history and recognize achievements of African Americans. In 1926, ASALH launched a “Negro History Week” to help advance its mission and to create and coordinate school curricula on the topic. Dr. Woodson had long argued that education was an essential ingredient in understanding and appreciating contributions of black Americans. He said, “If a race has no history, it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and stands in danger of being exterminated.” Dr. Woodson chose the second week of February to commemorate black history because the birthdays of both President Abraham Lincoln and abolitionist Frederic Douglass are contained within that week. As the celebrations and studies spread, so did the push to expand the week into an entire month, which President Gerald Ford did by decree, in 1976. As President Ford noted: “In celebrating Black History Month we can seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”
Today, the purpose and accomplishments of Black History Month are often called into question, being criticized as outdated, separatist or merely symbolic. Some African American millennials argue that having a formal, month-long observance gives the nation a pass to ignore black history the rest of the year. Despite producing a renowned PBS documentary, “More Than A Month”, filmmaker Shukree Hassan Tilghman says he’s now tired of being the face of Black History Month and that “needing a history month is not a position of empowerment.” Fox News contributor, Stacey Dash, who is black, said on air: “There shouldn’t be a Black History Month. We’re American, period. That’s it.” And, in a study featured in the book The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual: A Historical Analysis of the Failure of Black Leadership, author Harold Cruse wrote: “As the number of professionally trained black intellectuals has grown, there has been a parallel lessening of a collective sense of common experience, common purpose and even common commitment.”
For me, there is no controversy. I look to the inspiration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., when he said “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter” and know that Black History Month serves as an important organizing principle. It’s a time to both acknowledge past accomplishments as well as a time to strategize about political, economic and social accomplishments to come. To the critics I say: Black History Month is not about validation from other communities, but a call to action in our own community. It is a time to assess our current power, to thank those who paved the way, and to harness the potential while identifying individuals who will lead us further. As Frederick Douglass said: “If there is no struggle, there is not progress.” Black History Month helps to keep the struggle and progress alive.