When I was younger, I never thought to ask anyone about the origin of Black History Month. To be honest, I don’t recall learning about many historical Black figures in grade school. And, as I dig deeper into my memory, I have no recollection of consistently celebrating Black History Month either. I can vaguely remember being given an assignment on Martin Luther King Jr. and, eventually, learning about a list of well-known and timeless Black icons. But I don’t think that I was ever encouraged to question what white American history teaches us about Black history, and what those diluted and white-washed lessons mean for both Black and non-Black people alike.
Now, however, as an adult who has seen my fair share of racially-fueled encounters and who has begun to do the work of self-education that corrects white-washed historical content, I’ve realized that Black History Month is more than just a month of penning essays on historical figures like Thurgood Marshall or being forced to watch 1977’s Roots year after year. For Blacks, it’s a rite of passage that simultaneously provides both a time of self-reflection and a moment of clarity. But what is Black History Month, really? Here’s what it derived from and why it’s so important.
What’s the history behind Black History Month?
Though the title "Black History Month" was officially coined and nationally celebrated in February 1976, the premise of the month-long celebration actually dates back to the early 1900s. In September 1915 — half a century after slavery was abolished via the Thirteenth Amendment — Harvard-trained historian Carter G. Woodson and minister Jesse E. Moorland founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH), which was dedicated to researching the achievements of Black Americans and those of African descent. With continuous discovery and promotion of those achievements from Blacks, the ASNHL — which has now been retitled to the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) — decided to sponsor its first National Negro History Week during the second week of February, 1926.
The dates for the event were strategically chosen to coincide with the birthdays of then-presumed ally and 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, as well as prominent activist, author, and public speaker Frederick Douglass. As a result of the week-long event, in the years that followed communities nationwide began organizing celebrations, hosting performances and lectures inspired by Black stories, and even established history clubs in their local areas that focused on Black identity. The events became so popular throughout the nation that the mayors of cities in which people participated in Negro History Week began issuing a proclamation each year that recognized the celebration.
This show of support on the local level — in conjunction with the Civil Rights Movement and the realization that Black Americans were becoming more vocal about their need for true equality and freedom — helped Negro History Week transform into a month-long celebration on college campuses around the country dating back as far as 1969. And in turn, just a few years later in 1976, President Gerald Ford made the decision to officially designate February as Black History Month. At the time of its initial recognition, President Ford encouraged the public to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.” Since then, Black History Month (which is also titled as African American History Month) has grown to be internationally recognized with Black people and allies of Blacks acknowledging and celebrating all around the globe.
Why it matters so much.
Black History Month is a time when people are encouraged to honor both prominent and previously unsung Black figures for their accomplishments. Without the impact of Black History Month, the Black stories that deserve to be told would not have the large space to garner the attention or growth they need and deserve. Black History Month offers a safe space for Black people to celebrate everything that we’ve fought for, plus more. Black culture is consistently violated and duplicated by non-Blacks, but with Black History Month Black people are reminded of everything that can’t be taken away from us: courage, strength, wisdom, and undeniable influence. It is a time to reflect on the struggles that we’ve overcome, the mountains that our ancestors climbed, and the trek through the trenches that they were able to make it through for us to be here.
Black History Month is more than just a month. It’s a representation of true resilience.
How can I celebrate Black History Month even if I’m not Black?
Black History Month’s importance lasts much longer than the 28 days (or 29 during Leap Year) that are offered to Black people to celebrate our history. And truly, Black History Month can be respectfully celebrated by anyone because it’s a time where we are all urged to remember, honor, and give a spotlight to Black people and Black-focused events throughout history. For those looking to join in on the celebration without attempting to propagate and replicate the culture for their own benefit, there are many ways that you can celebrate alongside Black people.
To start, educate yourself about the contributions Black people have made politically, and culturally by researching or watching Black history documentaries that dive deeper into the plights and the successes of Blacks. You can also discover new stories that may not be widely promoted or discussed. Impactful Black stories can be found right in your hometown and for some, right next door. You just have to want to find them. Discovering those stories and celebrating them will help create new historical feats that others may not have found out about due to it not being local to them or receiving national attention.
Supporting and/or highlighting Black-owned businesses throughout the month is another way to celebrate, as well as picking up more books by Black authors and properly educating your children on subjects of race, prejudice, and privilege. Volunteering with the Human Rights Campaign, the Smithsonian Institution, the NAACP, your local social justice or historical society can offer a more hands-on option for support, too.
The most important way to celebrate for non-Black people (and also those who are Black), however, would be to stop limiting the celebration of Black history to just the month of February. Black history — just as any other historical mentions — deserve to be created, recognized, and praised year-round.
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