In 1976 Black History Month was officially put into place as a part of the United States’ bicentennial celebration. The story of Black History Month actually began in 1926 when the first celebration of Negro History Week took place. Historian, Carter G. Woodson thought it was beneficial for others to be aware of the contributions of African Americans to civilization. The first celebration in 1926 took place during the week of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglas’ birthdays. The popularity of the week grew and fifty years later was expanded to the whole month of February. President Gerald Ford remarked that Americans should “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”
I remember throughout my elementary school years that every February our history classes would solely be focused on the contributions of African Americans in our country. Yet, not everyone agrees that there should be a month solely dedicated to black history. In an interview with Mike Wallace in 2005, actor Morgan Freeman claimed that he thought Black History month was ridiculous. He said, “You’re going to relegate my history to a month?…I don’t want a black history month. Black history is American history.” Freeman was not speaking out against the need to know black history; he was saying that black history should just be a part of the larger framework of American history. I agree with Freeman on the fact that black history is American history. But my sense is that without Black History Month, many school aged children would never learn about Thurgood Marshall, George Washington Carver, Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou, Booker T. Washington, and many other prominent African Americans in our nation’s history. Given the choice, I believe there are a significant number of schools that would neglect to teach about the many contributions that African Americans have made in our society.
Kanye West rapped, “racism still alive, they just be concealin it”. Only a naive person could look at our nation and say that racism is not an issue. Many stories over the past year have shown us that race relations are still a problem in our country. Until the day comes that Dr. King dreamed of when his four children would be judged not on the color of their skin but the content of their character, I believe we need Black History Month. I believe we need our children to know of the oppression of so many African Americans throughout our country’s history. Our children need to know about the way that many African Americans overcame all the obstacles put before them. Our children need to know that black history is American history. Our children need to know that we are all equal and that racism has no place in a country founded on liberty and justice for all.
Black History Month is important because it exposes many of us to names we wouldn’t have otherwise encountered. Without Black History Month, many people’s conception of African Americans would only be shaped by images in movies and television. Those images too often offer only a limited scope of the African American community. In an article written for The Atlantic (http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2014/02/black-history-month-isnt-making-life-better-for-black-americans/283767/), Theodore Johnson says this,
“As Black History Month ambles on, the heroic contributions and monumental achievements of black Americans take center stage. We remember these champions and the bouts they fought, but they’re presented as extraordinary human beings—legends whose anomalous stories don’t neatly translate to everyday interracial encounters. As I move around the country, the behavior that greets me is usually more influenced by the black faces that fill crime-ridden local newscasts than the exceptionality of Charles Drew, James Baldwin, or Thurgood Marshall. The great black women and men who populate Black History Month celebrations feel like characters in a novel—a world away from the black guy a few steps behind you in a barren parking garage.”
Our celebration of black history cannot and should not be relegated to one month out of the year. If black history is American history then it needs to be part of the fabric of who we are. The names I mentioned earlier of prominent African Americans should roll off our tongues as easily as Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and John F. Kennedy.
As a pastor within the Reformed Church in America, I feel it is part of my call to celebrate the diversity that exists within the body of Christ. When the Scripture text for Sunday points me to issues of race, I should not shy away from preaching about racism and racial reconciliation. In my preparation for Sunday’s message, the other voices I allow in the conversation should not be limited to old, white men from Germany, England, and the United States. Maybe I should ask what Martin Luther King thought about this text, possibly James Cone has something to say, or Cornel West has some insight. All of this done, not as a way to pat myself on the back, but as a way to enter into the diverse community that is God’s kingdom.
One last note, I found this website as I was looking around at stuff. I thought it was worth looking at.