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What is Black History Month to America?

by Rev. Yolanda Norton

I have often heard the question, “Why do we need Black History Month?” The succeeding statement sometimes implied, but often explicit, is that we don’t have white history month. Except that traditional education privileges European and Western white history. Such paradigms often exclude the narratives and realities of Black people. The occasional exceptions to this exist in our perfunctory celebrations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and rare acknowledgements of Frederick Douglass, Malcolm X, and Rosa Parks. And often those contributions are relegated to Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and Black History Month.

Black History Month began as Negro History Week in 1926. This commemoration came about due to the work of Carter G. Woodson—a Harvard-trained historian—and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. Dr. Woodson believed that one of the greatest keys to the development of our society was to acknowledge the vast contributions that Black people across the diaspora have made to the flourishing of humanity. For Woodson, such revelation empowered Black people and enlightened others.

Black History Month should force an alternative impulse in public spaces about how we frame Black bodies. Black people are not a burden or victims; we are not merely a martyr or the aggressor. We are a foundation on which ancient civilization was constructed and the fabric engrained in the fiber of this nation. Ours continues to be the story of a people who continue to rise from the ashes of morally impoverished systems that actively seek to hinder our survival and crush our spirits.

The history and herstory of Black people includes the prolific and prophetic work of Dr. King and Malcolm X but it must also include the work of Mamie Till, Shirley Chisholm, Ida B. Wells, Madame C.J. Walker, Garrett Morgan, and a host of other Black women and men without whom the world would not have flourished.

And we must remember that an acknowledgement of Black History Month must take account of the reality that Black people are making herstory every day. Every day we continue to make the world a better place in ways that are both large and small. Every day we challenge the status quo. Every day we create and contribute to humanity’s thriving. While I have no desire to eliminate Black History Month, I hope that the spirit in which it was created begins to thrive not only in February but in the consciousness of all people throughout the year. I pray that such a consciousness will permeate public school curricula, higher education, theological education, and public life so that the intellectual, spiritual, and physical contributions of Black folks are not peripheral but primary.


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