Written by Soumyadip Sarker (Director of Education at Lives For Literacy)
The month of February is recognized in many countries as Black History Month. For many, Black History Month provides a way to celebrate the accomplishments and contributions of Black people in society. In schools, Black History Month also enables a way to learn about the lives of some of the most prominent Black figures such as Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and Viola Desmond. However, in learning about this, it is important to remember how Black History Month serves to improve society and the challenges it faces on a regular basis.
The initial ideas that led to Black History Month started with a man named Carter G. Woodson. A Ph.D. graduate from Harvard University, Woodson believed that it is of utmost importance to include the accomplishments and heritage of Black people as part of history. Due to his actions and dedication to the cause, by 1926, the second week of February was named Negro History Week in the US. In 1976, February became the Black History Month in the United States. However, in Canada, Black History Month was only formally introduced in 1995 and this was due to Jean Augustine, the first Black woman elected in the House of Commons.
Black History Month also enables one to view history from a different perspective. Throughout history books, especially in North America, major events and figures are described in a eurocentric perspective. This leaves essentially no room for considering the actions or cultures of people of other races. People of color, especially black people, had helped to shape modern society just as much as white people, albeit it often being unrecognized and left out of history books. During Black History Month, history is viewed from the perspective of black people, and this single step paves the path for inclusivity and unbiased history of the people. As Dr. Muhammad of Harvard Kennedy School says, “You can’t actually understand the country’s politics, its wealth, and the fragility of its democracy if you don’t acknowledge the global footprint of Black people.”
Black History Month, however, is not without its opposers. These include people who outright call for the elimination of this month to critics who believe Black History Month is flawed. As an example, Stacey Dash, a black actress, claimed that Black History Month is merely a remnant of the Black segregation in the past while Republican politicians part of Kansas Legislature claimed a month for black history is excessive and should be shortened.
Others such as the English art teacher Zia Hassan criticize that having one month for celebrating black history is not ideal for school students. Rather than focussing on Black history for one month then moving on to other topics, Hassan suggests integrating this with the overall history curriculum. This then enables students to step away from the eurocentric viewpoint and continually learn about the contributions of Black individuals throughout their study.
The commemoration of Black History Month also faces other issues in schools. As part of black history programs, students around the world learn about some of the most notable personas such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. However, such programs often fail to highlight less-renowned black individuals and contemporary racial issues. Raquel Willis, a civil rights activist, indicates that this approach in schools does not reflect the full diversity of the society, and the need to discuss the impact of modern activists and black LGBTQ individuals. While this requires changing school curricula, the topics help fill in gaps in students’ learning and be more relevant for today’s society.
Black History Month is also sometimes questioned of its relevance for members of other races. But the answer to this lies in the core ideas of Black History Month: anti-racism and anti-discrimination. It is not only Black individuals but also individuals who are from other races and ethnicities that also routinely face discrimination in many parts of the world. Black history also illustrates the struggles faced by people of color against the dominant culture while encouraging people to take action. With the dominant culture being white in society, it is clear that all other races are not “normal” and thus do not share the same privileges. In this way, Black History Month and its mission to eradicate racism is applicable to anyone, black or non-black.
In conclusion, Black History Month serves as a way for celebrating the accomplishments of black people and recognizing their struggles in the past and present. Although this is a key step towards ending systemic racism, Black History Month can be significantly improved in several ways. However, the one way to truly experience a world free of racism requires not only black people but everyone to stand up against discrimination against any race. To sum up, here is a famous poem by Martin Niemoller “First they came”, stressing the need for unity and taking action:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Socialist
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a trade unionist
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Jew
Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak out for me.
“Whiteness.” National Museum of African American History and Culture, 20 July 2020, nmaahc.si.edu/learn/talking-about-race/topics/whiteness.
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/martin-niemoeller-first-they-came-for-the-socialists.
Heritage, Canadian. “Government of Canada.” Canada.ca, / Gouvernement Du Canada, 1 Feb. 2021, http://www.canada.ca/en/canadian-heritage/campaigns/black-history-month/about.html.
Anderson, Melinda D. “Is It Time to Retire Black History Month From the Classroom?” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 22 Feb. 2016, http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2016/02/black-history-monthretire-or-reboot/470124/.
Bookman, Sandra. “What Is Black History Month, and Why Is It Important?” ABC7 San Francisco, KGO-TV, 1 Feb. 2021, abc7news.com/black-history-month-what-is-why-important-culture/10222616/. Yarhi, Eli. “Black History Month in Canada.” The Canadian Encyclopedia, Feb. 2019, http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/black-history-month-in-canada.