Sunday, February 8, 2015

Black History Month: Open Your Heart as Much as Your Mind


It’s February. That means Black History Month. It’s a time when schools, bookstores and media spend the month recounting interesting facts and wooden historic figures. But it seems to do little in the way of moving the needle with respect to what it means, and has meant, to be black in America. Here’s why.

There’s more to black history than slavery, the Civil Rights Movement and the scientist who worked with peanuts. There is an untapped spiritual depth not found in scholarly statistics and cliché events.

Brought Black History into the light
Spoiler alert for those who believe the urban legend that Black History Month is held in February because it’s the shortest month of the year. Contrary to conspiracy theorists, Black History Month in February stems from Negro History Week, thanks to author, educator and journalist Dr. Carter G. Woodson.

Woodson devoted much of his life to historical research. He believed African-American contributions were overlooked, ignored, and in many instances suppressed by many white historians of the day. This practice effectively rendered invisible the legitimate accomplishments and contributions of African Americans. So in 1926 he launched Negro History Week.

Why February? Woodson strategically positioned Negro History Week so that it would fall between the birthdays of noted abolitionist Frederick Douglass and President Abraham Lincoln.

Decades later, Negro History Week evolved into Black History Month in 1976. It is a recurrence that every American president has recognized ever since.

A lot of folks (white, black and other people of color) ask, in an age when we have a sitting president with African American blood coursing through his veins, why do we still need Black History Month. Isn’t every racial group’s history important?

How many do you know... beyond their names?
The short answer is yes/and. Yes, the histories of all race and ethnic groups are important. And since before the end of slavery in America, persons of African descent and African Americans have been making significant contributions to the United States. But until relatively recently, most wouldn’t know it. In fact, many of us still would be hard pressed to lift up the names of noted African American persons beyond certain sectors of society like, say sports and entertainment. That’s a problem.

When it comes to systems of oppression, everybody knows about slavery, or at least the fact that it happened. Fewer know about the Jim Crow era. Even fewer recognize their historic significance as it relates to what’s happening today. That includes the current school-to-prison pipeline phenomenon and how it’s fueling the heinous “mass incarceration” epidemic going on. Fewer still understand the societal relevance of it all.

For generations, black history was withheld from our education institutions. The result? For decades upon decades, African Americans were largely regarded as making no significant contributions to this nation.

That’s the more depressing aspect of Black History Month. There’s also an equally underreported side. And it’s as vast and enriching as any other cultural group. It’s a largely hidden history that consists of amazing triumphs of human spirit – of a kind that can be transformative in thought and being. It’s out there for the learning.

Pop quiz: who are they and what did they stand for?
In the end, some believe that providing historical truth will crush oppressive practices and prejudices beset upon African Americans (and other groups of people for that matter) whose accomplishments have been systematically muted for reasons of exploitation and greed.

However, I’m convinced it will take more. It will require something more impactful than mere exposure to facts. What’s required is a change of heart. In many respects, that’s what’s missing from Black History Month. Not from those who present it but those who receive it.

 
Follow J.R. on Twitter @4humansbeing or contact him at 4humansbeing@gmail.com.

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