Historically, Black people have been widely overlooked and under-appreciated for their contributions to American history; this is particularly troubling due to the fact that the United States of America was built using the unpaid labor of Black Americans during chattel slavery. However, these contributions go beyond slave labor, they extend into the fields of science, technology, art, music, and the entire cultural fabric of the nation. All aspects of life within the country, such as cuisine, style, and entertainment have been deeply influenced, if not directly created as a result of Black intellect, brilliance, and ingenuity. Still, Black people within the nation are not widely celebrated for these achievements. Moreover, Black Americans are continuously subjected to violence, economic disenfranchisement, and systemic injustice at the hands of the very nation they helped to create. In short, both the historical contributions and suffering of Black people within America are beyond immeasurable. For this reason, it is important to dedicate time and space to honor that history.
Negro History Week was originally was originally created by a Black historian named Carter G. Woodson in 1926. Woodson, who was one of the first scholars to study the African diaspora, declared the second week in February as a time specifically dedicated to a celebration and acknowledgement of Black achievement and struggle within America. Following this, Black students and faculty at Kent State University declared the entire month of February as Black History Month on their campus in 1970—two years after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., which was preceded four years earlier by the assassination of Malcolm X in 1964. Black History Month became an annual observance officially recognized by the Ford Administration six years later. In the 1967 book Malcolm X on Afro-American History, X discusses Woodson’s Negro History Week. He states that, “this week comes around once every year. And during this one week they drown us with propaganda about Negro history in Georgia and Mississippi and Alabama. Never do they take us back across the water, back home. They take us down home, but they never give us a history of back home. They never give us enough information to let us know what we were doing before we ended up in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Texas, and some of those other prison states.” X’s argument is a reminder of the importance of understanding and appreciating the history of Black people, even dating prior to their enslavement and placement within the Americas. He continues, “they give us the impression with Negro History Week that we were cotton pickers all of our lives. Cotton pickers, orange growers, mammies, and uncles for the white man in this country—this is our history when you talk in terms of Negro History Week. They might tell you about one or two people who took a peanut and made another white man rich.” The issue that Malcolm X highlights with the execution of Negro History Week is one that can be extended to reevaluate how we celebrate Black History Month to this very day. Yes, it is important to acknowledge and continuously regard the people who built the nation from the ground up as well as those figures who made innovative achievements. But still, it is crucial to consider why Black history should be taught and studied both in and outside of the month of February. Our understanding of Blackness in America should go beyond knowing who invented what—Black history should be honored through consistent education concerning systemic inequality, as well as through tangible actions that work to fight against anti-Blackness.
Feature Image Credit: The New York Times