After centuries of it being stated and accepted in many quarters that African people had no history, language, culture, or accomplishments worthy of recognition, efforts continue to be made to try to reverse that kind of thinking. It is for this reason that I am puzzled as to why people, particularly those of African descent, question the value of African/Black History Month. Every year, there are a number of articles and discussions which question the value of Black History Month, and at the same time voice the complaint that Black history is not “celebrated” throughout the year. Now, my father would say that as usual, I’m sticking my nose where it doesn’t belong, and giving an opinion no one asked for. If I were his son, I’m sure Dad would say that giving my opinion wasn’t only the right thing to do, but the manly thing to do as well. At the risk of offering my unsolicited two cents, I’ll once again ignore my father’s warnings because I think that open dialogue is healthy and can be constructive.
One of the statements I’ve heard, more than once, was that they put Black History Month in February because it’s the shortest month of the year. If by “they” someone means the government and/or the corporations which print calendars, it is time to set the record straight [again]. In 1924, Dr. Carter G. Woodson, an African American scholar, author, and historian, chose a week in February as Negro History Week, in an effort to focus on the accomplishments of people of African descent. I understand that he chose the month of February due to the fact that both Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln were both born during that month. During the late 1960’s, the week became known as Black History Week, and as time went on, it was expanded to Black History Month. I cannot say when the month became nationally recognized as Black History Month, but it was celebrated as such long before it was nationally recognized!
Aside from many of events which occur during Black History Month, it serves for me as a reminder of what my role ought to be in society, that is if I am brave enough to live up those challenges. Recounting one’s history and reflecting upon those things which still have meaning today should also inspire people to take further steps because once the celebrating is over the work must be begin. Celebration without work is “child’s play,” and the adults of this world know what work must be done once the celebrations end. It is simply not enough to celebrate the past. We must create a legacy consisting of our own accomplishments in our own lifetime. We have many challenges before us. In the United States alone, the challenges of race, class, and gender bias will continue to oppress and undermine the emotional, physical, and economic well-being of millions in this country if we fail to rise to the occasion. These problems are overwhelming and many of us, regardless of color, class, or gender, turn away in despair and frustration as we look for ways to just get through the day hoping that we won’t have to deal with yet another personal crisis. Millions are just too worn-out from having to deal with their own burdens even as they continue to be impacted by unemployment, homelessness, domestic violence, the judicial system, military spending, etc.
There are however many brave women and men who appear on the frontlines every day, determined to make a difference in some way, determined not to accept things as they are, and determined to not turn away in the face of adversity. A few of these people make the headlines and the six o’clock news. The vast majority who will never be widely recognized, however, continue to do their work and leave their mark on those who they come in contact with in immeasurable ways. While I can read with pride about those who did extraordinary things in the distant past, I can focus much more clearly on my contemporaries who fight for decent jobs, create block associations, initiate neighborhood clean-up drives, run after-school program, challenge drug-dealers, find housing for the homeless, teach others to read, take on city hall, and stand up to the racists and sexists. These are the people I strive to be like. They walk with pride and conduct their lives in ways which show that they have purpose, direction, and integrity. Nope, they don’t claim to descend from royalty. They probably won’t come up with any new inventions or end up in any history books. But, what’s great about them, and I mean absolutely great is that they are all quite ordinary. This means that they are setting examples which are easy for everyone else to follow!
For me, the daily celebration of Black history must involve walking the kind of walk which will help to create the kind of community and the kind of world where peace and justice are woven into the life of every human being. It’s not easy, but it is possible. I’m proud to engage in both celebration and action.
Naima, an atheist, feminist, and socialist activist currently serves on the Washington Area Secular Humanist Board of Directors and is a long-time WASH member.