Note: In recognition of Black History Month, I republish, with slight revisions, my blog post of February 1, 2015 and February 3, 2017 under the title African American History Month, and of February 4, 2020 under the current heading.
Although I am one who, on reflection and reconsideration, characteristically changes his mind, this word still rings true in my heart, soul, and spirit.
In 1976, as a part of the United States Bicentennial Celebration, Black History Month was recognized by the federal government as an annual occasion, in the words of then President Gerald Ford, to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”
Black History Month’s forerunner, Negro History Week, was established in 1926 by historian Carter Godwin Woodson and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. Negro History Week was observed in the second week of February to coincide with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass; February 12 and 14, respectively (dates since the late 19th century held in honor in black communities). Negro History Week focused on advancing the teaching and study in public schools of the history of black people in America.
I am a nearly 70-year-old African American educated in St. Louis public schools. I remember the dearth of system-authorized black history instruction. This glaring deficiency in content and in spirit was addressed and assuaged by the committed efforts of my nuclear and extended families and my elementary school teachers. They all, in conscious collaboration, fulfilled my grandmother Audia Mae Hoard Roberts’ proclamation, “Paul, to know yourself, you must know your people’s history.” Hence, I have an elemental, perhaps eternal affinity for Black History Month.
More expansively, I think of America. In the words of Irving Berlin’s fabled song, God Bless America, this “land that I love” has yet to incarnate fully the dream of Langston Hughes, who, speaking for all peoples, native and immigrant, white and black, said, “O, let America be America again; the land that never has been yet, and yet must be; the land where every man is free.” Therefore, in my view, for America to know herself, she must know her black people’s history.
Nevertheless, as a pluralist who rejoices in our racial diversity and as an inclusivist who equally relishes our common humanity, my inner inquisitor wonders and, sometimes, worries about Black History Month.
How fair is it to the concept of our universal humanness to dedicate any period (a day, a week, a month, a year or more) to the history of any one race?
And how fair is it to relegate the study of black history to any period when my people’s history, a vivid, inerasable thread in the rich tapestry of our national being and becoming, is American history?
(My aunt, Evelyn Hoard Roberts, an English professor, cherished the idea, the ideal of interdisciplinary and interracial – that is, shared, not separate – approaches to education. To that end, in 1977, she published American Literature and the Arts Including Black Expression.)
Yet, as Langston’s prophecy remains to be fulfilled, I continue to pray in his words:
O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.
As I believe that true equality is achieved in real part when all of us know the histories of each of us, I will commemorate and celebrate Black History Month.
© 2021 PRA