From its inception, Black History Month has always served many purposes. It’s a time that Black people collectively revel in the beauty and joy of our culture, and give a tribute to the Black pioneers whose shoulders we stand on. For the rest of the nation, it’s a grand scale opportunity to reflect on the indelible mark Black people have made to the growth of this country. And more importantly, to use Black History Month as a barometer for what progress has taken place since the previous year, and what still needs to be done.
But before the foundation of racism that America is built on can be remolded, there has to be an intentional glare into the depths of the systems that continue to fuel injustice.
Throughout this month, conversations centered on the Black languages that fought for equality and freedom, and teachers open up space in their lessons to highlight the work of Martin Luther King Jr., Harriet Tubman, and a few others. But the unfortunate tendency is to focus on ancestors who broke links in white supremacy without addressing the colonizers and governmental laws that created white supremacy in the first place, and that continue to marginalize Black people. In a word, it can be shallow.
This shallowness is partly why I find myself at times struggling to write about Black History Month — because the noise around it from some non-Black people sometimes strikes me as disingenuous at best.
Every aspect of America’s prosperity can be linked to the free labor, creativity, and genius of Black Americans. And it’s taken many years for the public to rightfully push aside white figures whose names have been stamped on historical achievements so that Black innovators could receive due credit for being so pivotal to this country’s advancement. People like Black mathematician Dr. Gladys West. She designed computer programming that would later become the Global Positioning System (GPS) that is used in most technology. But it took decades for her efforts to be acknowledged. This too is a form of tyranny and white supremacy.
Jamel Donnor, Associate Professor of Education, who works with the Center for Racial and Social Justice thinks this is exactly why Black History Month is so vital in this country. “We need that constant reminder,” he says. “Not just as Black people, but America needs to be constantly reminded of the contributions to this country. To the development of this country. Not just as chattel slaves.”
Carter G. Woodson created Black History Month in 1926. Woodson, who founded the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, wanted Black people to know more about their history and for the nation to recognize their accomplishments and sacrifices. President Ford later said Americans should “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.” It served as a chance to give the Black community space when we still weren’t considered a part of society that mattered and was born out of the necessity to insert ourselves in the narrative of America’s history as much more than a group that was “enslaved” .”
But over 90 years later, voter suppression is resurfacing, and efforts by many in government resemble the Jim Crow era. Some state elected officials are even banning attempts to expand school curriculums to be more accurate and inclusive because they are afraid white children will feel uncomfortable. But racism should make everyone uncomfortable. To thwart this inclusivity, the governor of Florida proposes the “Stop WOKE Act,” which stands for Stop The Wrongs To Our Kids and Employees, allowing parents to sue school districts for critical teaching race theory (a scholarly examination of the intersection of race and law in the US). In a press conference, he said, “No taxpayer dollars should be used to teach our kids to hate our country or hate each other.” In the same press conference, the governor further said that restructuring curriculum to truthfully mirror past events is an attempt to “erase the country’s history.”
“That is factually and categorically inaccurate,” says Donnor. “You’re engaging in dog whistle politics, and you’re trying to create a boogeyman to rile up a political base to pass anti-Black policies.”
He labels these types of statements as “disrespectful to Black people” and the indigenous population, like the Seminole tribe who made up the bulk of Florida. Leaders opposed who factual and transparent lessons in classrooms regarding race keep one message on repeat, “history” is subjective and shouldn’t include parts that make some white people uneasy. Thankfully, being white is not monolithic. Historically, many white allies fought alongside Black, and some even lost their lives.
These current bans against transforming education only represent one reason Donnor says Black History Month serves as a “reminder of how far we still need to go.” And although that trek is long, it is not unattainable, and it encompasses many aspects of society that are harmful to the Black community.
When it comes to breaking up the unjust ground America is founded on, education is just one factor. Think of everything else we don’t have:
- A solid plan for reparations to be distributed to Black families.
- The healthcare system reformed to properly listen to and care for Black patients.
- The depth of our history needs to be 100% represented in all historical coverage.
- Clarity and unity in a vocal pushback against racism in our media and culture, that leaves no doubt in our Black children’s minds that their worth and greatness are just as important as the white children they sit next to in class.
- Government entities officially, publicly condemn any hint of racism, white supremacy, or injustice and hold local governments accountable.
- Companies intentionally employing black leaders.
Until our present reflects these changes, the work remains unfinished.
Black History Month serves as a magnified reminder to the rest of America that although our people have endured the worst, we won’t settle for our children having anything but the best education, experiences, and opportunities. Equality is a bare minimum.
So while Black Americans (who are deserving of this month and so much more) dominate public spaces with the sounds of our cultural pride, our country must keep taking actionable steps that align with all the things our ancestors fought for. And every February should be a chance for the rest of America to reckon with its history, and its complicity in that history, and to assess our progress, and its limits, honestly, with a renewed determination to push forward.