By Klarke Stricklen
Dr. Carter G. Woodson, the “father of black history,” created Negro History Week in 1926 to highlight the achievements of African Americans. African Americans are an ethnic group consisting of total or partial ancestry from Africa. The celebration of African Americans’ excellence would eventually encompass Black Americans, those who identify with the black experience in America. This inclusive expansion of the black experience in America would eventually extend to include global conversations of black identity.
At the time, society refrained from acknowledging any history where the “negro” was placed in any position of power. African Americans at the time were subjected to a single story: that of their bondage. It was the narrative that 20th century America thrived on and used to perpetuate a system of oppression through movies, newspaper articles and cartoons, and eventually television.
The media criminalized and defined the community as ignorant of American values, thus proving that they were unworthy of obtaining the “American Dream.” Woodson and his colleagues sought to redefine America’s story of the African American through the study of black history and eventually the celebration of Negro History Week. It would be another 50 years until President Ford recognized February as Black History Month.
Although 90 years have passed since the creation of Negro History Week, history has continued to repeat itself. The black community continues to battle many of the same issues that Woodson and his colleagues once fought against. The institution of slavery was abolished more than 150 years ago and many Black Americans still face a form of institutionalized bondage, formally known as the prison system.
False narratives depicting black males as criminals and threats to society have carried over into modern day America, leading many members of the justice system to justify the wrongful deaths of individuals such as Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, and countless more. The media is still at the forefront for creating these stereotypes that are projected into the modern society. The only difference is that now the black community is producing and writing counter narratives. In light of all of these constant struggles, America continues to celebrate Black History Month.
But what does it really mean to celebrate Black History Month in America? Is it simply about posting a famous quote by a black leader, someone like Malcolm X? Is it posting a picture of Martin Luther King Jr or Angela Davis, while neglecting to mention that they were once viewed as the most dangerous individuals in America? If not, how can we as Americans celebrate black history truthfully and continue the work of Woodson? It starts by acknowledging that black history should not have to be a separate history that we learn, one deemed in most schools as an elective instead of a requirement.
As a country, we should know that posting pictures and quotes does nothing to aid the advancement or vocalization of black history. Henry Louis Gates Jr. once said, “the African-American isn’t limited to the story of the United States.” Therefore, if we really want to celebrate the rich history of the African American, we must start outside the scope of the United States.
In addition, it is essential that we acknowledge the leaders of certain movements within the black community, a greater recognition of local and “behind the scenes” participants are greatly needed. In movements such as Civil Rights or black power, there were always individuals who never made it to the front lines but contributed in their on way. While there are only few records of these participants, I challenge all readers to venture out into their communities or elders of their family and ask about those who participated in the movements.
Black History Month should be celebrated through education on topics foreign to most and a commitment to continuing the work that scholars and early leaders made possible. This joyous month can not simply be celebrated in one lesson plan, lecture, book, or post. It is something that should be year long and utilized by all.
As Americans, we must realize that there is a greater need for action. It is simply unacceptable that the same racial issues 20th century scholars fought against are still prevalent today and blatantly ignored by many of our fellow citizens. It begs the question of how we could truly live in a “free” country and still deem African Americans as second class citizens in many regards.
When I think of the first Africans who stepped foot on American soil in chains, or early leaders of the black community, I can not help but wonder what they would say regarding our modern era. Their thirst for freedom and basic human rights led them to engage in sacrifices that many would shy away from. The desire for the “American dream” has been one that many African Americans, such as myself, feel quite distant. For these thoughts, I find solace in the words of Gates, who says “Black people redefine the American Dream.”
I realize that many of my opinions may cause others to question the validity of my thoughts and how our society has come to this point. For these thoughts I offer you The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross with Henry Louis Gates, Jr, and 13th by Ava Duvernay.