By Dr. Sylvester Bowie,
NASW-CA Chapter President
The month of February is celebrated as Black History Month and it is important that we continue to be mindful of the reasons for having a Black History Month celebration in the first place. According to the Library of Congress law (https://www.loc.gov/law/help/commemorative-observations/african-american.php), National African American History Month in February celebrates the contributions that African Americans have made to American history in their struggles for freedom and equality and deepens our understanding of our Nation’s history. That is the official version, but many Black people and their supporters over the centuries have lamented the absence of mention of Black contributions to American History.
Whatever the driving forces behind the establishment of Black History Month in February it evolved out of overwhelming concerns of many prominent Blacks over time regarding their education or as Lauryn Hill, artist and performer would say, the mis-education of not just American Blacks but, Americans in general. It is critical that this history continue to be told and that even though Blacks no longer represent the largest minority group in the United States it is the reality that their contributions not be diminished and subsumed under terminology such as “people of color.” To be clear, I am not arguing against the use of terms such as, “people of color;” to the contrary, I admit there is a place for the usage of the term, but when its use results in the diminishment of the contribution of Black to the development and history of the country then the term must take a back seat to accuracy. Black slaves were not people of color they were black and that should always be the appropriate stating of the fact.
This quest to recognize the role of African Americans in American history really got into motion with the effort of Carter G. Woodson, the eminent Educator and Historian who came to recognize that many books and conversations about American history excluded the roles of African Americans in that history. So, part of his effort regarding what became “African American History Week” and later “Black History Month” was him pushing for more recognition of the importance of Black Americans in history and so the struggle started then. Of course, people like James Baldwin had similar reflection about the shortcomings of his own education that I’ll describe as his own mis-education. James Baldwin said that when he was going to school he was bummed by because it seemed that the history had been taught without the cognizance of his presence.
Although Blacks have been in America since the 1600s, before the arrival of the Mayflower, it took the 30th President of the United States, Gerald Ford, in February 1975 to officially recognize the contribution of Blacks to the American Experience. President Ford, said in his message on the observance of Black History Week as he urged the nation to “recognize the important contributions made to our nation’s life and culture by black citizens.” (Message on the Observance of Black History Week. | The American Presidency Project (ucsb.edu)).
Yes, after more than 300 years of Black contribution to the culture, history and life of the American experience, the official government stamp of approval was now conveyed by President Gerald Ford on February 3, 1975. The celebration was for a week and it was not until the following year that the celebration was extended to a month. In 1978 the next President, Jimmy Carter on January 27th declared that the Nation’s Afro-American (Black) History Month message as a call for celebration. He said that the month of February is a wonderful opportunity for people to review their roots, their achievement, and their projections and to celebrate.
An interesting historical fact is that the proposal for an official Black History Month celebration was the brainchild of black educators and the Black United Students at Kent State University. This proposal was first made in February 1969 and it came to fruition the following year. The Kent State University celebration happened from January 2 through February 28, 1970. Although, before the Kent State educators and students had their proposal, Carter G. Woodson in 1915 founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History and in his quest to encourage and bring attention to the wonderful contribution of Black to the American way of life, he initiated the first celebration of the work, role, and history of the American Negro with “Negro History Week” in 1926. The selection of the month of February for this celebration was not an accident but was rather deliberate as it included the birthdays of two revered men in the history of Black Americans (Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass).
So, as we think about the implication of what it means when we say, “Black Lives Matter,” or “Black History Month,” we should not forget the reasons and the purpose for not just saying or making these ideas be cliches, but rather that they should be meaningful and worthy of our reflections and no efforts should be entertained to diminish their meaning with verbiage that results in confusing messages. Celebrating Black History month might be the least we can do considering the contribution of blacks to this country and if not celebration then what? In a speech to the UC Berkley community Baldwin argued that: “Our presence in this country terrifies every white man walking…They needed us for labor and for sport, now they can’t get rid of us. … We cannot be exiled, and we cannot be accommodated. Now, something’s got to give.” (https://news.berkeley.edu/2020/06/19/the-time-james-baldwin-told-uc-berkeley-that-black-lives-matter/ ).
Let us work assiduously to ensure that the only “give” contemplated is the vigorous celebration of black excellence in the month of February we should celebrate Black History Month, and look forward to the day when we celebrate Black pride, contribution, role, history and achievements all year long instead.