My grandfather once told me that our history is the key to our future. The moment that history, no matter how terrifying and threatening, is forgotten is the same moment that our worst times reoccur to haunt our future. If the mass enslavement of millions of Africans was forgotten or not taught in history, what would become of their descendents?
There is the possibility that the evident mistreatment of blacks in America would be worse in the future than what it already is now. A chance that the increasing normalization of racism and prejudice would skyrocket into a completely different state than what it is now. The white supremacists who have recently come back out of the woodwork might somehow be even more emboldened than what they are now. The amount of threats and hate crimes could shoot through the roofs, and the amount of progress that we have made in recent years could be dispelled.
Knowing our history is the key to improving our present. Not just with knowing about the mass enslavement of our ancestors, but also with knowing about the continued struggle for civil rights. From W.E.B Du Bois and Booker T. Washington to Barack Obama and Serena Williams, there has been a tremendous amount of black Americans who influenced the way that the United States sees blacks and their potential, the same potential and achievements that are so easily overlooked and underappreciated.
Negro History Week was created to allow a period where historic events and people could be remembered, celebrated and mourned; also, as a way to instill pride in both the elderly and the youth and to allow the memorial of people who worked hard in their daily lives to change other people’s lives.
Negro History Week, now known as Black History Month, was constructed in 1926 by the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. It was created shortly after the Red Summer, a series of racial riots against blacks that took place during the summer of 1919 in Indianapolis, Chicago and Washington D.C., and the Harlem Renaissance, a period of time in the 1920s where black intellectual and cultural contributions became more widely celebrated. Negro History Week was placed in the second week in February to coincide with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president who wrote the Emancipation Proclamation, and Frederick Douglass, the father of the Civil Rights Movement. In 1976, five decades after it was set into place, Negro History Week was officially expanded into Black History Month by President Gerald Ford who defended this expansion by saying that the country needed to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”
That is just what Black History Month is, “the opportunity to honor.” It is the opportunity to share the pride we have in one another, living or deceased. It is the opportunity to celebrate just how far we have come in both African history and American history. It is the opportunity to learn from the hidden and renowned faces that have crawled from the underground railroads to the mid-nineteenth century when the idea of being black was revolutionized. So why does it have objections?
To some, an entire month of one race’s history is “excessive” or “wrong.” Some feel that allotting one specific month for black history might give others the excuse to ignore it for the remaining eleven months of the year. Or that, somehow, giving a race that has been historically oppressed, disregarded and thought of as less than human would undermine the history we have been taught in school, but in that same way, the whitewashing of American history would not. In many history classes, students briefly learn about Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr. and Harriet Tubman, but barely cover the Little Rock Nine, the group of African-American children that challenged racial segregation in schools and faced an angry white mob. It’s barely acknowledged that police brutality did not arrive to America suddenly during 2010 and instead the first major instance of it was during the infamous beating of Rodney King in 1991. Because these tragic events are not covered in curriculum, they are not learned about.
Dedicating a month to black history is more than just being able to have a month out of the year, it is about the continued progress that we have been able to make. In my U.S. History class, we do not talk about the incidents that led up to the Civil Rights Movement. We do not talk about the soldier on soldier violence that occured due to extreme racism in World War II while blacks served. Instead, it is summarized into one event or one group like the Tuskegee Airmen and then we fail to recognize their accomplishments from World War II until 2007.
Famous civil rights activist W.E.B Du Bois said that “if a race has no history, it stands in danger of being exterminated.” That is why affairs like Black History Month are important to people throughout America. It reminds people that there is history beyond what is taught in history books. It emphasizes the point that black people have grown and flourished even during a period of time where it was shunned and shut down.
A month dedicated to Black History reminds people our history is valid, and it is more than just slavery and the Civil Rights Movement. There are positives, like the Harlem Renaissance, in our history. Having time set aside out of the year allows for us to remember all of it, not just the portion of it that is emphasized to us. It will not be shaved down into bits and pieces from the past two hundred years, and it will not be shaped into what some Americans feel like is important for us to know.