Black History Month: An Overview
Feb 05 / admin@aplbc
Black History Month is an annual observance originating in the United States, where it is also known as African-American History Month. It has received official recognition from governments in the United States and Canada, and more recently has been observed in Ireland, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom. It began as a way of remembering important people and events in the history of the African diaspora. It is celebrated in February in the United States and Canada, while in Ireland, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom it is observed in October
NEGRO HISTORY WEEK (1926)
The precursor to Black History Month was created in 1926 in the United States, when historian Carter G. Woodson and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History announced the second week of February to be “Negro History Week”. This week was chosen because it coincided with the birthday of Abraham Lincoln on February 12 and of Frederick Douglass on February 14, both of which dates black communities had celebrated together since the late 19th century. Negro History Week was the center of the equation. The thought-process behind the week was never recorded, but scholars acknowledge two reasons for its birth: recognition and importance. Woodson felt deeply that at least one week would allow for the general movement to become something annually celebrated. Also, after the ten year long haul to successfully complete his “Journal of Negro History“, he realized the subject deserved to resonate with a greater audience.
From the event’s initial phase, primary emphasis was placed on encouraging the coordinated teaching of the history of black Americans in the nation’s public schools. The first Negro History Week was met with a lukewarm response, gaining the cooperation of the Departments of Education of the states of North Carolina, Delaware, and West Virginia as well as the city school administrations of Baltimore and Washington, D.C. Despite this far from universal observance, the event was regarded by Woodson as “one of the most fortunate steps ever taken by the Association”, and plans for a repeat of the event on an annual basis continued apace.
At the time of Negro History Week’s launch, Woodson contended that the teaching of black history was essential to ensure the physical and intellectual survival of the race within broader society:
If a race has no history, it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated. The American Indian left no continuous record. He did not appreciate the value of tradition; and where is he today? The Hebrew keenly appreciated the value of tradition, as is attested by the Bible itself. In spite of worldwide persecution, therefore, he is a great factor in our civilization.
By 1929, The Journal of Negro History was able to note that with only two exceptions, officials with the State Departments of Educations of “every state with considerable Negro population” had made the event known to that state’s teachers and distributed official literature associated with the event”. Churches also played a significant role in the distribution of literature in association with Negro History Week during this initial interval, with the mainstream and black press aiding in the publicity effort.
Throughout the 1930s, Negro History Week countered the growing myth of the South’s “lost cause”, as epitomized in both the novel and the movie Gone With The Wind. That myth argued that slaves had been well-treated, that the Civil War was a war of “northern aggression”, and that blacks had been better off under slavery. “When you control a man’s thinking you do not have to worry about his actions”, Woodson wrote in his book The Miseducation of the American Negro. “You do not have to tell him not to stand here or go yonder. He will find his ‘proper place’ and will stay in it.”
Negro History Week grew in popularity throughout the following decades, with mayors across the United States endorsing it as a holiday
UNITED STATES: BLACK HISTORY MONTH (1970)
Black History Month was first proposed by black educators and the Black United Students at Kent State University in February 1969. The first celebration of Black History Month took place at Kent State one year later, from January 2 to February 28, 1970.
Six years later, Black History Month was being celebrated all across the country in educational institutions, centers of Black culture and community centers, both great and small, when President Gerald Ford recognized Black History Month, during the celebration of the United States Bicentennial. He urged Americans to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history”.
In the black community, Black History Month was met with enthusiastic response; it prompted the creation of Black history clubs, an increase in interest among teachers, and interest from progressive whites.
On February 21, 2016, 106-year Washington D.C. resident and school volunteer Virginia McLaurin visited the White House as part of Black History Month. When asked by the president why she was there, McLaurin said, “A Black president. A Black wife. And I’m here to celebrate Black history. That’s what I’m here for
UNITED KINGDOM (1987)
In the United Kingdom, Black History Month was first celebrated in October 1987 (which year was also coincidentally the 150th anniversary of Caribbean emancipation, the centenary of the birth of Marcus Garvey and the 25th anniversary of the Organization of African Unity, an institution dedicated to advancing the progress of African states). Black History Month in the UK was organised through the leadership of Ghanaian analyst Akyaaba Addai-Sebo, who had served as a coordinator of special projects for the Greater London Council (GLC) and created a collaboration to get it underway. It was first celebrated in London in 1987, as part of African Jubilee Year, when on October 1 Dr Maulana Karenga from the US was invited to an event at County Hall to mark the contributions of Black people throughout history, and Addai-Sebo drew up a plan to recognise the contributions of African, Asian and Caribbean people to the economic, cultural and political life in the UK, with other boroughs beginning formally to institute October as Black History Month in the UK.
In 1995, after a motion by politician Jean Augustine, representing the riding of Etobicoke—Lakeshore in Ontario, Canada’s House of Commons officially recognized February as Black History Month and honored Black Canadians. In 2008, Senator Donald Oliver moved to have the Senate officially recognize Black History Month, which was unanimously approved.
REPUBLIC OF IRELAND (2010)
Ireland’s Great Hunger Institute, at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut, notes: “Black History Month Ireland was initiated in Cork in 2010. This location seems particularly appropriate as, in the 19th century, the city was a leading center of abolition, and the male and female anti-slavery societies welcomed a number of black abolitionists to lecture there, including Charles Lenox Remond and Frederick Douglass
When first established, Black History Month resulted in some controversy. Those who believed that Black History Month was limited to educational institutions questioned whether it was appropriate to confine the celebration of Black history to one month, as opposed to integration of black history into the mainstream education the rest of the year. Another concern was that contrary to the original inspiration for Black History Month, which was a desire to redress the manner in which American schools failed to represent Black historical figures as anything other than slaves or colonial subjects, Black History Month could reduce complex historical figures to overly simplified objects of “hero worship“. Other critics refer to the celebration as a form of racism. Actor and director Morgan Freeman and actress Stacey Dash have criticized the concept of declaring only one month as Black History Month.Freeman noted, “I don’t want a Black history month. Black history is American history.”
Since its inception, Black History Month has expanded beyond its initial acceptance in educational establishments. In 2018, Instagram created its first-ever Black History Month program with the help of its then Head of Global Music & Youth Culture Communications, SHAVONE. Instagram‘s Black History Month program featured a series of first-time initiatives, including a #BlackGirlMagic partnership with Spotify and the launch of the #CelebrateBlackCreatives program, which reached more than 19 million followers. By 2020, Black History Month had become a focus beyond schools. The Wall Street Journal describes it as “a time when the culture and contributions of African Americans take center stage” in a variety of cultural institutions including theaters, libraries and museums.It has also garnered attention from the U.S. business community. In February 2020 Forbes noted that “much of corporate America is commemorating” Black History Month including The Coca-Cola Company, Google, Target Corporation, Macy’s, United Parcel Service and Under Armour.
There are also developments in how African Americans may choose or not choose an HBCU. The most critical resource of any institution of higher learning is its human capital, and HBCU’s are at risk of losing that as well. The current admission policies of predominately White institutions (PWIs) ensure that qualified applicants of any color are accepted and most top institutions actively recruit minority students. Well qualified minority students are often the target of frenzied competition. (Cross, 2007)[This competition is reflected in the inducements offered by PWIs to qualified Black applicants, most notably monetary incentives, which for many students and their parent find too attractive to pass is.] For this reason and others, fewer Black undergraduates are choosing to attend HBCUs, this figure has gradually declined to 22% as of 2002 (U.S. Department of Education, 2004). This dwindling percentage, coupled with opportunities at PWIs, have led some to speculate whether the HBCU has outlived it purpose and lost its relevance for Black youth (Lemelle, 2002; Sowell 1993; Suggs, 1997b).