The President's Column: Black History MonthFebruary 22, 2023
Let’s make sure it does not get whitewashed.
Our country has been celebrating Black History Month for nearly half a century, since it was adopted in 1976, following a campaign by African-American scholars.
“Negro History Week” was celebrated 50 years prior to that, but it was determined that a week was insufficient to celebrate the entirety of Black history.
It is a good thing we now celebrate Black History Month, but it would be much more appropriate to appreciate Black history all year-long. For Black history is American history, and vice versa.
There simply is no U.S. history without Black history, much as many people might wish it were otherwise.
Black History Month is supposed to be a corrective to what has traditionally been taught in schools about presidents, military generals and leaders of industry — all of them white, all of them men.
In our schools, we finally began learning that U.S. history is much more than that. Crispus Attucks, a Black man shot down in the Boston Massacre, was the first man to die in the American revolution. Benjamin Banneker, another Black man, was the landscape architect who designed the city of Washington, DC. Every February, millions of school children choose a Black hero or celebrity to write about—Martin Luther King Jr, Jackie Robinson, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, W.E.B. Dubois, Aretha Franklin, Angela Davis, Barack Obama, LeBron James—the list goes on.
This is all well and good, but it barely scratches the surface of Black-American history. After all, there are 42 million Black Americans—14 percent of the country’s population. It is telling that, nearly 250 years after our country’s founding, we are still celebrating “firsts”—just last year the first Black woman was selected to serve on the Supreme Court. These “firsts” tell us much about Black history and U.S. history as whole.
Some 600,000 enslaved Africans were brought here in chains, beginning in 1619. This is not only Black history, it is American history, the history of our country’s origin. Enslaved for 250 years and living under U.S.- style apartheid for another 100 years, Black Americans built much of the country’s wealth, industry and institutions. Black labor built our Ivy League universities, our textile and apparel industries, cotton, tobacco, peanut and sugar plantations, our ports and waterfronts. And much more. That is Black History that should be celebrated, not ignored.
Four hundred years of resistance—both organized and individualized—to white supremacist terror, police violence, lynchings, whippings, rapes and all manner of brutality and barbarism—this is also Black history. But it is largely ignored by the hypocrites who celebrate Martin Luther King Day, but not the ideas, principles and leadership of the man himself. In many states and school districts today, schools that are closed on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, are banned from teaching what the man believed and wrote about.
The celebration of the great achievements of Black jurists, scientists, artists, political and religious figures is important, hard-earned, and well past due. But Black History Month must also recognize the history that tens of millions of Black Americans are making every day, living under and fighting to overcome systemic racism. Even after centuries of oppression, Black Americans face earlier deaths, huge disparities in wealth and income, more dismal health outcomes, fewer educational and employment opportunities, and open hostility from one of our two major political parties, as well as from all levels of our criminal justice system—from the cop on the beat—to the U.S. Supreme Court majority.
It is likely that, were U.S. history taught and understood properly— that is, in all its multicultural, multinational complexities and struggles for social justice and equality—there might not be a need for Black History Month.
Meantime, let us all take a moment this month to reflect on the beauty, struggle, resistance and, yes—heroism of Black Americans who’ve survived and flourished against all odds over the last four centuries.