Understanding Black History Month

Celebration meant to celebrate, not berate


Joey Clark

Black History Month is a chance for students to honor African Americans.

Joey Clark, Staff Writer

The term slavery left a bad taste in America’s mouth, a healing scar many would rather forget was there.

Segregation, a dark cloud dissipated years ago by the activists of the civil rights movement that have put away their signs.  Black suffrage was achieved years ago, and in many ways the equal world Dr. Martin Luther King dreamed about became reality.

Why bring up bad patches of history, the shameful parts of the American past that ruin the whole “Land of the Free” thing? Do we actually even still need Black History Month? 

The origins of Black History Month center around one man: Harvard-educated historian Carter G. Woodson.

He started “Negro History Week” in the second week of February 1926 to coincide with the birthdays of famous abolitionists Fredrick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. It was meant to promote the education of black history in schools across the country.

“Negro History Week” gained more traction in the 1960s during the heat of the civil rights movement when black empowerment and identity began to take shape. President Gerald Ford formally recognized the entire month for black history in 1976, urging the American public to designate time to honor African Americans’ diverse history.

“Not many African Americans got that chance (to be credited with their achievements,) so the fact that they’re finally getting recognized for them now is great,” freshman Kayla Williams said.

Figures such as Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, and Douglass take their places in history for due cause, and more modern voices such as Oprah Winfrey, Will Smith, and Octavia Spencer speak out

But unknown African American history-makers remain anonymous or aren’t credited for their contributions to the US and the world. Every year though more and more people are recognized as powerful leaders and role models.

“One person that stands out to me would probably be Serena Williams,” Kayla Williams said. “She was a huge inspiration to me not only because she is an incredible athlete, but because she’s a strong independent black woman. She is a role model for little African American girls all over the world that they can be stronger than people say they are.”

This year’s theme for the month is “African Americans and the Vote,” which relates to the much anticipated 2020 elections. Voters note the lack of diversity in the progressive Democratic Party, and some reminisce about the days of former President Barack Obama.

Barnes and Noble previewed a new line of book covers for classics this month featuring illustrations reimagining characters as people of color. The bookstore received backlash, however, when critics pointed out they weren’t really highlighting diversity because the writers were white and instead should’ve showcased black authors. 

Pre-AP English II classes began to read “To Kill a Mockingbird.” The book grapples with racial issues of the 1950s as an African American man is accused of a crime based on his race he did not commit. A white lawyer, Atticus Finch, defends the man against racist attacks from the Alabama town and becomes ostracized for attempting to vindicate him. Finch teaches his daughter, Scout, and the readers to see life through another’s perspective before making judgments, a lesson that rings true especially today for all groups of people.

“Discrimination is a global issue,” English II teacher Stephanie Scott said. “It’s one of the biggest lessons of the book. Obviously African Americans aren’t as discriminated against (now), but we can relate it to discrimination against other cultures and groups today and understand it’s not OK to do that regardless of race, religion, or anything else.”

It’s important, too, to not only teach the struggles African- Americans toiled through but also to note their triumphs in a country sick with prejudice. History often focuses on the pain, prejudice, and violence African Americans faced through slavery and segregation, but bright spots shine through in their history. Inventions and advances in science, music, literature, and art all stand out.  

“My favorite book is ‘The Bluest Eye’ by Toni Morrison, which basically tells the story of a young African American girl that is abused by her white foster parents,” Scott said. “I’d recommend all of Maya Angelou’s poems, too.”

One of the most notable creations that came from the struggles of African Americans is soul music and the blues. Generations used music to retell folk tales, guide slaves to freedom, and express the frustration and anger, they felt daily. The Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin, Jimi Hendrix and Prince remain popular alongside modern singers like Beyonce, Rihanna, and John Legend.

“Soul music is what came alive from the black community during their times dealing with discrimination,” Scott said.

The spirit of the original civil rights activists of the 1960s lives on through the Black Lives Matter movement. That movement arose after the black community felt the justice system made its convictions based on racial bias. The injustice felt by Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, and Freddie Gray reverberated  through the majority of African Americans who themselves or someone they knew faced similar judicial inequality.

It’s important to note that the movement isn’t anti-law enforcement or even suggesting that white, Asian, or Hispanic lives don’t matter but rather recognizing and fighting racial bias amongst the justice system and working, regardless of race, to achieve true equality. However, protests arguably are just as revolutionary and dangerous as unruly crowds break over police barriers, just like their grandparents did years before their time.

“We never want history to repeat,” Scott said.  “We study the good times of history, but we really need to look at bad parts and the awful places where humans can go to and then make people aware of these times.

America recently mourned the loss of Katherine Johnson, an African American mathematician at NASA credited with being the brains behind the Space Race. Johnson’s contributions to the first American orbital spaceflight had only just been recognized by the public after Taraji P.Henson portrayed her in the 2016 movie “Hidden Figures.” The film showcased Johnson and the whole department of black trailblazing women and their work for NASA. Former President Obama awarded her with the Congressional Medal of Freedom. Johnson was 101 when she died.

Black History Month is meant to educate, not berate. Not to spread blame on what ancestors long ago, but to understand where these biases may come from and overcome them in efforts to see the truly equal world Martin Luther King Jr. once dreamed his children would live in one day. It’s in remembrance of those who unfairly lost their lives or faced violence and persecution based on the color of their skin, to make sure people remember the tribulations and honor the achievements of African Americans.


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