Larry Smith

“And why does it have to be the shortest month of the year?!” That’s the way the conversation frequently starts. Of course, that not-so-rhetorical question is in reference to the fact that February is designated as “Black History Month.” (There is a very simple answer to that question. More on that later.)

I knew only three things for certain when I was growing up: first, my grandmother loved to spoil her grandchildren. Second, God is always watching us (like a scary Santa Claus). Third, February is Black History Month. (As a side note, though, I greatly miss Tom Joyner’s eponymous radio program, I don’t miss him saying that he celebrates Black history “not just in the month of February.” That little redundancy bothers me about as much as when people say “6 a.m. in the morning”. I digress …)

As an elementary school student in the Indianapolis Public Schools system, I was exposed to the rudiments of Black history and culture. For example, I learned the lyrics to — and proper way to belt out — James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Ev’ry Voice & Sing,” which has been designated “the Black National Anthem.” (It greatly saddens me that so few of us know the lyrics to this great song — if we’ve heard of it at all.) I also learned a little bit about the “big three” of Black History Month (i.e., Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King Jr.) Still, I had only a vague sense of why this annual commemoration existed, and I had no knowledge of its origins. (Ultimately, I would major in African American Studies in college.)

This brings me back to a subject that I broached above. Black History Month came into existence primarily as a result of the vision and tenacity of Howard University’s legendary historian, Dr. Carter G. Woodson. (Like his contemporary, W.E.B. DuBois, Woodson earned a Ph.D. from Harvard University.) In 1926, Woodson — through what was then known as the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History — designated the second week of February as “Negro History Week.” (The organization is now known as the Association for the Study of African American Life and History.)

Woodson chose February because Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass were born in that month — and African Americans had a history of celebrating both men’s birthdays. Due to Woodson’s efforts, which coincided with his creation of the “Journal of Negro History” in 1916, Woodson is often referred to as “the Father of Black History.” (The publication has been known as the “Journal of African AmericanHistory” since 2001.) He wrote:

“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 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.”

In 1969, a group of students at Kent State University pushed for the creation of “Black History Month.” As a result, the university was the first organization to celebrate the month-long commemoration in 1970. (Clearly, it’s no coincidence that I was born that year.) In 1976, President Gerald Ford gave his imprimatur when he publicly recognized Black History Month during America’s bicentennial celebration. Today, Black History Month is observed (during October) in the Netherlands, Germany, Ireland, and the United Kingdom.

I would be remiss if I failed to acknowledge the fact that Black History Month is not without controversy — even among some Black people. It is easy to dismiss those who oppose recognizing Black achievement (regardless of their race). These are the people who say things like, “There should be a White History Month!” It is more difficult to dismiss those who champion Black achievement when they offer such a criticism. For example, some African Americans oppose Black History Month because it limits the focus on our achievements to a single month. Such critics argue that Black history should be incorporated into the year-round study of history.

I am somewhat sympathetic to that argument. However, I don’t trust many local school systems to actually implement it. For example, “history” books in several Southern states refer to our enslaved ancestors as “servants” and fail to highlight the brutality and inhumanity of that period (as well as the Jim Crow era that followed). Besides, no one suggests that Americans should shelve other ethnic celebrations — such as Oktoberfest or St. Patrick’s Day — in favor of “greater integration” of such history.

Finally, and most importantly, even if Black history were interwoven into the curriculum in every school, in every city, in every state, children should first learn about our history and culture at home. We don’t need approval from a school board, a principal or a teacher to do so. We just need adults — young and old — to step up.

Larry Smith is a community leader. Contact him at larry@leaf-llc.com.

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