Why I Love Black History Month

So I’ve been reading your comments on the Miss Jessie’s giveaway post, and it’s got me thinking alot about Black History Month. Quite a few of you pointed out the month’s most obvious flaw — its brevity. Also, that black history is American history, the blood, sweat, and tears of our ancestors were shed to build this land. Why have a separate month to shine a light on black accomplishments, and why reduce our historical appreciation to the shortest month of the year? I’m going to float a theory and you can feel free to debate it with me — maybe the powers that be don’t really want us to focus solely on black history for too long. You start mulling over the history of African Americans in this country for too long, and you start getting angry at the long shadow of Jim Crow. Heartbroken over the would haves, could haves, and should haves of our shared past. Angry that more people simply don’t know the extent of the lynchings and murders and unacceptable indignity people of color have endured in this land. Seething at continued injustice.

Black History Month is about celebrating accomplishments and recognizing greatness. It is also when buried memories come to the surface and old wounds are picked open. For example, when Concrete Loop wrote about the destruction of Black Wall Street on June 1, 1921, when 3,000 people were murdered and a thriving black community was firebombed, the comments revealed how successful the burial of history was. Most people expressed their horror that this happened, and dismay that they never learned about it in high school or college. And for most people, that’s where the study of history begins and ends.

It’s really quite shocking what we don’t know about the experiences of our ancestors. I read a really interesting post over at Whatever Lola Wants, that intelligently dissed the concept of Black History Month. She eloquently explains why some have called it “ghetto month.”

As a professional historian, I don’t like these specially designated “months”: Women’s history, Black history, Hispanic history, etc, I don’t think we should just limit the exploration of any one culture to just one month. And yet, we do! And everyone does it! Schools, private companies, the media; we cant escape being inundated with information on whatever particular culture thats being honored that month.

As a historian, I prefer a more ”inclusionary” (yeah I made that word up) look at history, whether it be American, Caribbean & Latin American, economic or military history, lets look at the various events within those categories as it pertains to ALL INVOLVED, not just “Black economic history” or “Blacks in the military.”

I completely agree with her on that front — our history should be celebrated year round, thereby eliminating the need for a designated month. Ideally, black history month wouldn’t feel like a bone we were collectively thrown. Ideally, we’d all be immersing ourselves in history, and feeding our minds by reading more, and watching less television. Ideally, the information revealed in PBS’ Black History Month documentaries would be common knowledge to the masses, not an annual surprise to those who choose to tune in. Ideally, our national museums, art galleries, and libraries would give equal attention to all races, and feature ethnically diverse exhibits year round. Ideally, someday, as Dr. Carter G. Woodson wanted when he devised Negro History Week to begin with, Black History Month would eventually be deemed unnecessary.

But I sincerely believe it is still needed, and it serves a wonderful purpose. History has been whitewashed, and school curriculums have been sanitized of many significant bloodstains. From my semester-long experience of teaching an African-American history course disguised as an college intro English class, I’d venture to say that college-age kids today know the bare bones of black history. However, it isn’t fleshed out in a way so it touches their lives. The experiences of our ancestors remain dusty, sepia-toned, and ancient to them. It seems uninteresting and irrelevant to their realities. The students I taught had heard about a time when lynchings were commonplace, but they’d never heard Billie Holiday sing “Strange Fruit” and empathized with the dread that reverberates through that song. They knew Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream before he was assassinated, but that’s pretty much all they knew. They’ve heard that Malcolm X spoke of freedom by any means necessary, but that was the sum of their knowledge. And this was a class full of college freshmen from various corners of the country. Based on the responses I got when I taught that class, and played them “Strange Fruit” and talked about what the song means, watched the closing montage of Bamboozled (I won’t ever forget their shock at seeing racist cartoons for the first time) and realized how stereotypes are constantly recycled… yeah. I’d say Black History Month is still very necessary. (You can read a whole lot more about stereotypes at the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State University, an incredible online resource).

I’d love to see us all make an effort to celebrate our history year-round. We need to step past the old-hat factoids, and educate the next generation about those that paved the way for all of us. Right now, this is what we have. 28 days (29 this year) of documentaries and very special episodes and exhibits and special posts on blogs and columns in the paper. So instead of dismissing the limited time we have, I say soak it up, learn as much as you can, and think of ways to improve what we’ve got. There’s some excellent stuff to see and do and learn this month.

Around the blogosphere, Stereohyped is offering a daily dose of BHM, Concrete Loop has a Black History Spotlight, Listen to Leon is featuring a contest (give a black history fact and you could win a prize!), and the ever-enlightening What About Our Daughters has put together a fantastic list of Black History Month documentaries and television screenings (psst, click here to read Clutch Magazine’s awesome interview with Gina, creator of WAOD).

And I’d love to add, VH1 Soul and VH1 Classic are airing some incredible Black History Month docs every night for the rest of the month. And for next year’s Black History Month roundup of documentaries, I’d personally like to see more of those Ego Trip documentaries and I’d LOVE to see Cartoon Network present something on banned cartoons. Hey, it could even be a whole animated documentary hosted by Huey Freeman of the Boondocks!

What do you think, bellas and fellas? What would you like to see next Black History Month? What would you change about Black History Month?

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Comments

  1. Mrs.Mckinzie says:

    Next Black History Month I know that I don’t want to see Nas and Kelis wearing their “nigger” shirts,and jackets.I do want to see Obama as our President.

  2. I feel you on that, Mrs. Mckinzie!!

  3. Well Done sis well done~

    PS

    When Obama becomes President there should be 10+ rules on what we has black people can no longer. Any Suggestions? I will start first :

    1. STOP SAYING THE ‘N’ WORD!

  4. Bella this is a great post. There is a part of me that feels a bit rebellious towards “black” History month, because SOMETIMES I feel as though they are saying “here, remember your past for these few days, and we don’t want to hear about it anymore until next year”. Our last poll question on ymib was whether or not it is more important to celebrate Black History Month for one month or if we need to celebrate it it everyday, and obviously everyday won the vote. My biggest problem with “Black history” month is the fact that we tend to only focus on “Slave” history. Like you mentioned, when we celebrate black history, for the most part, we reminisce of our hardships and beatings and lynchings. But we as Nubian people need to dig a bit deeper, and reach further back in our history. I would like to see us celebrate our highest points rather than the hardships all the time. While I think it is important to remember the hardships, I think it is more vital to our culture to remember our greatness as far back as Egypt. We were not always slaves, we were not always beaten and had our families separated, so we need to celebrate more than this short part of our rich culture. We now know plenty about “His” story…now I would like to see more of “our” story within our daily lives. Thanks for this post Bella!

  5. people are so contrary and haters. black history month was established at a time when there was little to no idea of black people even being human, being citizens and much less having a history worth writing about. it just happened that Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln were born in February. The fact that so few people appreciate and understand African American history as American history and the reverse testifies to the usefulness of Black History Month. Just because people that don’t care about it think it’s stupid doesn’t mean it is stupid. But it’s a simple historical fact that Dr. Carter G. Woodson–who established the field using his Ph.D. when he could have done a lot of other things with his time–created intellectual infrastructure of thinking about black people’s presence in this country. I suppose I have to be heartened that in his speeches, Obama presents black history as American history — with the lines his has about abolitionists, slaves, immigrants, etc all whispering hope. As for students not knowing history. Look, they are students. If we are their teachers they aren’t going to know unless we teach them. That’s why they are in school — to to learn. So don’t sweat it that they haven’t heard this and that — they are in your class because they are interested and we are supposed to fuel and fire and feed that curiousity. Now, I admit that it is weirdly alienating instead of liberating sometimes to teach African American history but just try to see that the students are there to be students and they are not you. You are you because you had teachers who showed up and explained all the dates and names and showed you how to analyze texts and told you the stories and make you feel and put flesh onto the history. I say we celebrate black history to remember that at one time we needed to have it because there was a big void. Somebody has to sit and interview all those former slaves and preserve the documents and that it’s a lot of f*cking work to do a Ph.D. and to write these books and to spend your life in these archives while your friends get married and buy houses and makes tons of money to go on holiday and you are just there learning something just so you can teach someone else, yeah? You are just there with words and ideas. That’s how it is to get a Ph.D. There is no glamour. Just a little bit of maybe freedom for your mind and what you hope you can give to other people. Praises to the librarians and archivists and collectors out there and to Woodson, Anna Julia Cooper, DuBois three of our earliest Ph.Ds and professors who got the work done so we would know a little bit about where we have come from and that there is an infrastructure — there is even the phrase black history. As for being slaves. Well, we are here. So the slaves must have been something more than that so we can take heart in that. Anyway, African American history is so powerful – -maybe the most gripping in someways but it does get rendered as cheesy and shrugged off and snickered at which I suppose is a mark of freedom. Maybe in fact it isn’t necessary then.

  6. Amen Mrs. McKinzie!!

  7. Great post, Bella! About a month ago, I went with my daughter’s girl scout troop to see the Muntu Dance Theater perform here in Chicago, it was amazing to see what these 13,14 year old girls didn’t know compared to my 7 year old daughter! I believe teaching our children about our culture has to start in the home,but it hard when some of the parents or teachers don’t know themselves. Those girls that were sitting next to me were confused when I was explaining what “Strange Fruit” was about. It is now about one month later and i know who are the ones who learned from that 2 hour history lesson and who didn’t.

  8. Our families should make every month a Black History Month in their own homes. Black children need to understand that black acheivement is the norm and not the exception. My 11-yr old daughter had just written an essay on Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing and in that process she memorized the verses and could sing along yesterday in church. My heart was full just seeing how proud she was to sing it and understand the lyrics fully for the first time. I’m committed to making sure my kids get a steady dose of Black History all year long.

  9. HBO is showing some films from some independent young Black filmmakers… they are showing them frequently and On Demand – check your local listings.

  10. I feel that Black History month does serve a purpose. Yes, ideally it would not be marginalized to a month and would be more mainstream, but in reality we are not there yet, and so I think it gives an opportunity to focus on things particular to that history. I do agree that we need to teach our children ourselves their history, and it starts at home, like everything else. I can think of several other cultures who teach their children the history of their people, and they teach it at home, the best place to learn important life lessons (I’m speaking of your average slightly dysfunctional but basically okay family, not the glaringly dysfunctional, of course). What they learn in school should be a supplement or reinforcement to what they are already learning at home. I also think that we should move beyond the tried-and-true and already known, and explore other things. Even though many people know who she is, do they really know the extent of what Ida B. Wells did for us? Do they know that many years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus, Ida was dragged screaming off a train that was for whites only? There are so many, many things in our history, we have made so many contributions and so have many incredible and courageous people. I think to truly study our history, from the Queens and Kings of the ancient continent that is Africa through our strength and survival of slavery, on down to the men and women who demanded that we be treated as true citizens of the United States with all rights and privileges accorded to such, would give our children pride in who they are and appreciation of any physical characteristics that identify them as part of that heritage, instead of us having to work so hard sometimes to help them love those things (our hair!). AND as has been stated, shut down these people and their N-word statements!!!! I’m so sick of their arguments justifying why they wear, say, etc. that word. This post is long enough, though, so I’ll stop on that note.

  11. As a side note, if you think that Black History Month is recognized and taught everywhere in schools in the US, au contraire, mon frere! When I lived in a small town in the South, it was not taught in the schools or talked about period at the library, etc. I was shocked. One of the only black teachers (and right now I don’t think they have any), who had to stop teaching for health reasons, insisted on celebrating Black History Month in her classroom. So, I think that provides another perspective about this whole thing. It’s not universal, even in this day and age, and it can provide an opportunity to at least crack the surface of so much ignorance.

  12. BlackHoney says:

    I think it is our responsibility now to limit the celebration of black history to February, we really should really celebrate 365 days a year. Also we can’t rely on the mainstream educational system to provide us with this information, we have to do the research ourselves. If we did this, we would know that the bombing of Black Wall Street was not an isolated event for this country or the Western Hemisphere. These massacres or racial uprisings against black people occurred in North Carolina, Florida, Missouri, Louisiana, Cuba, Jamaica, and the Dominican Republic.

  13. BlackHoney says:

    I think it is our responsibility not to limit the celebration of black history to February, we really should really celebrate 365 days a year.

    (I need to proofread 365 :-))

  14. BlackHoney says:

    Bebroma, I have to ask where in the South you lived because I’m from AL (a small town in AL) and we were taught Black History all year long. It wasn’t because it was mandated. In the “Black Belt”, most of the older people lived through Jim Crow and participated in the Civil Rights Movement, so they were in effect passing on their personal history and the history of our people.

  15. Bella, I’m glad you posted on this topic, because honestly I had never given Black History Month this much thought. I could be alone in feeling this way… but I’m probably not. So thank you!

    I grew up in a small West Texas town with a 4% Black population which just happens to be the home of a well-preserved historical site that served as a base for Buffalo Soldiers. BHM was not the impetus for my knowledge of this regiment. My Mom took me to the museum as a little girl and we learned about it together. Then I found books about it on my own at the public library. In my later years, I was invited to participate in a special historical learning program at the site, and it was lead very passionately by Mr. Bluehardt — a tall, gentle-faced white man. I was the only black kid in the program.

    It doesn’t upset me that we have months designated for learning about certain things. Without BHM and all the other specially designated weeks and months for learning, many Americans wouldn’t even think about it. I liken Black people who only focus on their history every February to Christians who only go to church on Christmas and Easter. There are countless untold and unknown stories about the black experience in America AND there are events going on all over the nation all year long! It just so happens that it’s more publicized during the second month of the year. I learn something new every year about our history. Just as I was recently schooled by a younger woman about the Wilmington Massacre of 1898, We’ve got to share our history with people young and old and not be so concerned about when we do it or how long America or the media does it. We just need to do it.

  16. eep… some bad grammar in that post. but you get my drift :)

  17. It was in northern Arkansas. I didn’t mean to imply it was a Southern issue — I’m sure you could find that situation in various places. However, that’s where I happened to run into this situation. That town was not a place that celebrated differences, even though lots of different ethnic groups have lived/do live there, probably because of the chicken factories. The attitudes there were a new experience for me. People are prejudiced everywhere, of course. It was just more in your face there. Ninety miles to the south, it was a different story.

  18. Also, I do think that sometimes it’s not a matter of not caring about history for some people, it’s just that if it doesn’t concern you or yours, you might not be aware of it. I was just thinking about the Japanese internment camps in WWII, the importance of the Navajo language in WWII, the Chinese experience in building the railroads in California, etc. All part of American history, and not something that everyone knows about. Same with us, especially with us (I’m a bit biased :-])…there are so many negative images out there, and there is so much that a lot of people just don’t know, and so I agree with Shones on this point. In an ideal world, we wouldn’t have to have special months/weeks for this, that, and the other, but since we don’t live in an ideal world, it gives people a reminder/opportunity, if they wish, to learn about other people and other things, and even to learn more about our own history.

  19. What I would like for the media and everyone to do is humanize our ancestors(they weren’t these great people who could do no wrong…maybe then our kids can start seeing themselves in our ancestors instead of believing they were so great that no one else can be as great), and recognize those figures who were not as visible but equally important to the movement(ex. Fannie Lou Hamer, community action leaders, etc.). I mean, seriously, Black History Month is basically a retelling of elementary facts of our history, which trivializes our history. Such as, Rosa Parks was simply tired and refused to give up her seat(no mention of how Rosa Parks was an NAACP member and that was planned) or MLK had a dream and gave a speech for equality (no mention of how he was beholden to folk like JFK, Johnson Administration, etc. which influenced a lot of his decisions, and why community leaders were more confrontational). I simply want the complete history told. Such as how Black women were essential to the Civil Rights Movement or how the Black Panthers created a lot of community programs that shamed the federal gov’t.

  20. Thanks for quoting me Afrobella! Id like to add 2 things: 1) I DID NOT make up the word “inclusionary”, hehe, and 2) We should keep the following quote of Dr. Woodson in mind as we proceed though February, and other months as well:

    “We should emphasize not Negro History, but the Negro in history. What we need is not a history of selected races or nations, but the history of the world void of national bias, race hate, and religious prejudice.”

    - Dr. Carter G. Woodson (1875-1950) on founding Negro History Week, 1926

  21. As a student of all history and of American history in particular, I love black history month because of all the awesome resources I find about the lives of normal people who happen to be black and for the AMAZING PBS docs shown during the month. I’m not black, but I honestly believe a comprehensive understanding of everyone’s history is vital to my understanding of the world.

    Lola, that is a great quote! I wish I had heard it before.

  22. I first saw that quote painted on the side of a building in my neighborhood (yeah,I live in a strange ‘hood, lol).

    L

  23. I totally agree with Ericka. Black History Month is good, but it could be so much more, especially when it comes how BHM is represented in schools.

    I’m sure when most of us were younger, our classrooms focused on the same 4 people and the same time periods every February. In what other subject would that be acceptable?

    Just how many times can you do a report on Harriet Tubman, lol?

    Black history is so much more than slavery and Jim Crow. It’s important (at least IMO)for young kids, especially young black kids, to know that.
    So ideally that’s what I’d want next year, just a more thorough exploration of the diversity of black history and culture in schools during BHM.

  24. I, like many of us, have mixed feelings about Black History Month. From as long as I have known about slavery and oppression in America, I have wondered why we were GIVEN only one month (and yes, the shortest) to learn about who we are as a people (besides the couple of paragraphs in our history books). But I have learned to except it for what it is and make the best of it(as our people often do in any given situation). Let’s face it. A lot of people, of all colors, would not have a chance to learn anything about the strengh, courage, and accomplishments of our forefathers(and mothers) if we didn’t TAKE this month to educate.

    Most African Americans don’t have much knowledge of their bloodline before maybe a great grand. Henry Louis Gates’ African American Lives special is really a touching knock in the head about how much we really are effected by our lack of knowledge about our history. Well, next year during Black History month. I think it would be great if in the mail we all received a geneology packet with our family history going all the way back to slavery. My husband and I thought that this would be an excellent payment of reparations from America.

  25. Bella:

    I so agree with you. I would rather concentrate on celebrating our history and our culture continually. I realize that there are young people who need a facilitator; something or someone to help them make this history real.

    Your post is beautiful. Thank you.

    Xica Bahia

  26. Since Black History Month is fast becoming something just as commercialized as Valentines Day and Christmas, with McDonalds, car companies and various corporations coming on board, BHM will be with us for a while. The question is, when will we really get with Black History? When will we cherish and respect our history?

  27. I totally agree that so few people appreciate and understand African American history as American history and the reverse testifies to the usefulness of Black History Month

  28. Ok this is to every african american out there…..Why are yall SO AFENDED by the word negro or nigger? Did u know that nigro is a spanish work that means black and are or arnt yall black? and if yall can call us white people “crackers” then what the hell is wrong with nigger or negro atleast that does make sence but where the hell did “crackers” come from?!?!

    2nd of all black history month is no longer needed! Ok why do yall use that as an excuse to get everything? You whernt even alive when that happened to them! And now what…they are died incase you havnt notice your anciesters that where slaves are now died so now whats so important that you have to have a whole month to yourselfs…its history, which means it happened a LONG LONG LONG time ago, history gets lost and not to mention if we keep up with all the old history about our anciesters then where are we going to make room for the recent history? Everyone should for get about the past and just try and do go in the future so that way when they are in history they will inspire others…if you want to make a point or statement about your black anciesters then do good and make them proud by doing something important not complaining about how bad your anciesters had it..because thats not you! God i hope i got though to someone on this thing..this doesnt even say enough…and if you disagree with me then write me at my email i am open for discussion.

    Love, Angel Perry

    *ps dont write me saying your a reasict bc im not i just dont see the point in this crap*

  29. Cassandra Jones says:

    Well, first and foremost I love this site. Thank you…. But I am writing you because I needs ideas if anyone can help. I want to teach the young children and the adults about how history but how can I do that? Besides a play….we do that every year……I need ideas for Black History Month

    Thank you

  30. L'afrique cest chic says:

    Well… Black history touches on not only Europe, Africa ,Middle East, Caribbean and the Americas but also as most people seem to forget – ASIA… yes there were slaves on route to the Americas who were left in Asia..
    There are some African Asian communities in India.
    Who weem to have been forgotten.

    Black history month tends to focus only on America…

  31. HELLO

  32. bob's friend says:

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  33. bob's friend says:

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  34. bob's friend says:

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  35. i had ur mums last night

  36. bob's friend says:

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  37. I realize this is really boring and youre simply skipping to another comment, but I recently wanted to throw a big thanks! We really discovered this on yahoo, and im happy I did so. Ill definitely be returning

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  1. [...] “Why I love Black History Month“, Afrobella urges us to use the time we have to soak up as much knowledge as we can. She [...]

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