Oh, the great dilemma of Black History Month! I know there is a Hispanic Heritage Month and an Asian American Heritage Month, but when is White History Month? That is often the response of too many Americans to the question of why our nation (and several others) celebrate Black History Month. Some respond in that manner because of a lack of understanding of history, while others do so because of fear and hate of the “other” in their lives. Among Black Americans there is debate about whether we should be celebrating Black History Month or African American History Month. For many of us, the answer to that question is driven by an understanding of the generation into which we were born or the context in which the terms are being used. Yes, there are multiple kinds of controversy surrounding Black History Month in the United States, but it is difficult to imagine a rational debate about whether such a celebration is historically justified or is still needed. For those who know little or nothing of the origins of Black History Month, I feel compelled to offer a brief overview of its evolution.
The official celebration of Black History Month was initiated by Dr. Carter Woodson, a renowned historian who, along with others, discovered that in the century following the Civil War the most commonly used textbook in teaching history in American schools all but completely ignored the contributions of Black Americans, with only two even being so much as mentioned. In 1926, Dr. Carter initiated a celebration of Black History Week. The month of February was chosen because it included the birthdays of Dr. Frederick Douglass and President Abraham Lincoln. During the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, colleges and universities began to place greater emphasis on Black history, with many of them creating majors and minors focusing on Black Studies. In 1976, Black History Week was officially expanded to Black History Month. What does Black History Month mean to me? First, it is important to understand that I am a product of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. While in college, I marched and peacefully protested. In early adulthood, I helped form an organization to demand equal rights for Black Americans in my own community. I witnessed on live television George Wallace block the admission of Vivian Malone and James Hood to the University of Alabama. I witnessed on live television Orville Faubus block the integration of public schools in Arkansas. I witnessed on live television police dogs and firehoses being used to attack Black American citizens marching and protesting as they sought to attain even the most basic of human rights in a country that, from its beginning, has professed freedom and equality to be the hallmarks of its establishment.
As a child, I experienced just half an hour from Holland, Michigan, my grandmother (who was raised in Alabama) pushing me off the sidewalk and stepping aside herself anytime a White person approached us. I have experienced denial of access to housing I could easily afford for no reason other than the color of my skin. I have spent my entire adult life as an educator and know first-hand the too often continued shortcomings of our school curriculums at all levels. I also know that, even as textbooks have improved, the training of our teachers to fully engage in the teaching of diverse history, literature, etc., often fails to keep pace with the improved resources now available. Even worse, in too many places teachers simply refuse to teach what they don’t like or personally believe. Sadly, that is still also too often true in college and university settings. Having established the historical context for my thinking, I will now share a few thoughts about why Black History Month is important and will likely remain so for a significant period into the future. As Black Americans, there are few things more difficult than facing the reality that many people around us don’t even acknowledge that we exist. They walk by us daily without speaking or even making eye contact. Believe me, we know when they are intentionally casting their eyes aside or feigning attention elsewhere to avoid any possible need for even the most casual form of direct contact. Does anyone think we don’t notice when we are sitting by ourselves in a classroom or meeting and people would rather stand or sit in an overcrowded area than come sit by us? Does anyone really believe we don’t notice when others cross the street to avoid passing us on the sidewalk, lock their car doors while sitting at an intersection we are walking across or speed up their pace when they realize we are walking behind them? These are daily occurrences for many Black Americans, offenses that are unwarranted and undeserved. They are LEARNED behaviors. They are classic examples of why we need a Black History Month. As Black Americans, we need it because we have a demoralizing lack of knowledge about our own people and their history.
On the other hand, White Americans can never be expected to understand a culture they have been so carefully groomed to fear (and even hate) without organized and systematic plans for educating them. How can Whites learn to respect Black Americans when their contributions to our nation have been systematically ignored and even denied. There ARE many White Americans who would love to learn about Black History. I have seen that thirst for such knowledge right here on the campus of Hope College and in several areas in Holland. Unfortunately, even in today’s world of technology and widespread use of social media, it is a serious challenge to feed that hunger for knowledge when we have legislators and other government leaders (including right here in Michigan) proposing that we revise school curriculums to eliminate information and discussion of unpleasant parts of our history, including slavery, segregation and the civil rights movement (not to mention things like the internment of Japanese citizens, the Trail of Tears and the limiting and denial of women’s rights, etc.). Yes, Black Americans, White Americans, Native Americans, Latinx Americans, Asian Americans – AMERICANS need Black History Month.
In closing, I want to make it clear that Black history, like White history, must be a part of the daily story of America that is told in our schools, our news, our media programming and in every aspect of American life. Black history IS American history. The same is true for Latino American, Asian American and Native American history, and for the history and stories of LGBTQ+, special needs, women and other Americans whose stories remain largely untold. As we continue to record that history and tell those stories, we must be sure to honor the authentic voices that have for too long been ignored and denied in traditional telling of American history. We need far more “other” voices telling the stories of their own histories, and we must learn to genuinely respect and fully value the oral history that has often been the only way of recording the stories of those denied education and equal opportunity in our society. We can do better. We MUST do better. When we do, we will open the door to a future in which all races, ethnicities, religions, cultures and subcultures have the gifts they bring to, and share in, our nation fully welcomed and valued. I pray that each one of us will accept responsibility for doing what we can to make that day a reality. Celebrate Black History Month. Celebrate ALL of American history. Help us learn from our mistakes and build upon our successes. Please, do SOMETHING to make a positive difference in bringing our deeply divided society together so we can, sooner rather than later, reach the full potential of our beloved nation.
Professor Yelding has been a faculty member at Hope College since 1994. He also worked for 25 years in public education and administration.