By Maya Mitchell, Co-Opinions Editor
There is only a 28 (sometimes 29) day period where Black people in the U.S. are openly celebrated. February is formally recognized as “Black History Month,” when the societal contributions, athletic achievements and historical significance of Black people in America are acknowledged and spoken on. But people, especially those who are not identified as being of Black descent, fail to recognize the true importance of this time for everyone.
What is Black History Month?
Black History Month started off as “Negro History Week” when Harvard historian Carter G. Wilson’s and minister Jesse E. Moorland’s Association for the Study of Negro Life and History sponsored the event.
Wilson and Moorland thought an appreciation week would help promote the research and work of Black Americans through their organization. Choosing the second week of February, as it lined up with the birthdays of President Lincoln and Fredrick Douglas, the first Negro History Week was held in 1926.
In the following years, city mayors all over the country started to recognize the second week of February as Negro History Week. At the peak of the Civil Rights movement and an awakened sense of the Black identity amongst young people, Negro History Week sprouted into Black History Month on college campuses. In 1976, President Gerald Ford formally recognized February as Black History Month, and his successors have done the same.
Celebrations during Black History Month can vary. Restaurants have Black History Month-themed meals, networks put on TV specials on important Black figures, popular online sites promote trivia quizzes and more. Some schools, like Columbia High School (CHS), host culture fairs and discussion groups to talk about Black history and the Black experience in the U.S. During February, Black history and culture are brought to the forefront of people’s minds, and it is more important than most people think. Black History Month allows a narrative that is often left out of American society to be recognized, spoken on and appreciated.
Black History within American History
The beginnings of the Black experience in the United States are not something of a delight. The history we were taught about from a young age- abduction, slavery, the Underground Railroad- is the start of Black society within the U.S. We are taught the facts: Africans, West Indians and people of the Caribbean Isles were taken from their homes, taken across oceans to work for landowners for a profit. But it is almost always taught alongside traditional American history: the American Revolution, the Civil War, the Civil Rights movement, the World Wars. While these historical events did occur, the full 360-degree view of American history, which expands past slavery and civil rights, is what students are not learning.
There have been efforts, however, to change this. The 1619 Project, for example, is an on-going initiative from the New York Times Magazine, which hopes to change the commonly taught narrative. Founded on the 400-year anniversary of the beginning of American slavery, the project is dedicated to reframing the country’s history by “placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of [B]lack Americans at the very center of our national narrative.”
The project aims to highlight the importance of slavery and its influential effects on the progression of American society starting in 1619, and ultimately declare the country’s birth to have occurred in 1619 as opposed to 1776. The project and the New York Times want this historical viewpoint to be more prominent and have challenged the American school system to change their curriculums across the country, gaining the attention of national lawmakers.
While these proceedings are being blocked by politicians, it still holds importance. Black history holds significance because of its roots in and ramifications on the entirety of American history. In the classroom, students are taught a narrower version of history, a version not often taught or recognized in schools, except during Black History Month. And while there are steps being taken to rectify this, for right now, the most prominent teaching period is Black History Month.
Celebration at Columbia
At CHS, Black History Month and its celebration are up to the discretion of one’s teachers and elective extracurriculars.
Accreditation of Black History Month in the classrooms of CHS varies. CHS has specific classes dedicated to race, like “Race, Genocide, and the Holocaust,” as well as “Literature of the African Diaspora.” However, in other classes, how much Black History Month is recognized and talked about depends on the class and its ‘range.’ Math and science classes are less likely to talk about Black History Month and its subject matter because it is outside of the course’s coverage. In english and history classes, it often depends on the teacher.
“I don’t take any history classes this year so that definitely might be part of the reason why I haven’t heard much about Black History Month,” stated Tai Artis, ‘21. In a virtual environment, class discussions on Black History Month are even less likely to come up due to less class time.
Black History Month is mostly celebrated by clubs more so than the school as a whole. Student organizations like Black Student Union (BSU) and the Minority Achievement Community (MAC) host events throughout the month of February. This year, MAC held events that varied from talent shows to trivia competitions, to educational discussions like “Am I Black Enough?” or “Protecting My Blackness in White Spaces,” all held virtually. In past years, BSU has had school-wide assemblies, giving Black CHS students a platform to speak to the community. MAC has also held community discussions about race and welcomed guest speakers such as Ruby Bridges and former Black Panthers to come and speak to the CHS community.
“Everyone is paying attention in the community,” said Marcia Hicks, CHS Science, Language Arts, and Math Lab advisor who is also the leading administrator of MAC. “The events we hold are no different than the events we hold all year, it’s just more people are paying attention in February.”
Typically, awareness about Black History Month and its events at CHS are limited to the school. But in a world dominated by the Coronavirus (COVID-19), things are different. Assistant Principal Terry Woolard’s daily PA announcements about school events are now sent through various emails to the school community throughout the day. All of the information a student gets now, a parent receives too, and the response from some CHS parents has not been great.
“I don’t think the community always recognized how much work the MAC students do all year,” stated Hicks. “I don’t think they realized MAC works on leadership, respect and development for students of color. For some community members, because they are getting the emails [about what we are doing], that was scary. I think it challenged some community members to think about what living in a diverse community means and it has challenged the administration to have tough conversations about it.”
Black History Month is not just a time of celebration for the Black community. It is a time of learning and listening for others, a time to hear from a group that has been historically removed from the narrative. “For most, it’s a time to listen and not command the floor from our students of color,” said Hicks. “It’s the only time that everyone stays quiet.”
What Needs to Change
This past year, with influential events like the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, racial civil rights have been thrust into the forefront of people’s minds. The constant battle between Black Americans and the racism prevalent in American society, while extremely important, is not all it means to be Black in America.
Exposure to Black history, regardless of race, can help give a nuanced view of current issues. In schools, only the most well-known parts of Black history are taught and many from the community think it is time to change that.
“It’s time for our curriculum to move forward,” Hicks commented. “The whole [Black experience in America] is narrowed down to a sound byte for the masses to be able to handle it. We are more than a sound byte. We are more than a chapter. It’s time for a town that talks about diversity not to address leaving us out of the narrative. ”
“Dismissing Black history is ultimately doing a disservice to our understanding of American history in general,” added Raina Hackett, CHS 2018 graduate. Clarence Jones, a current senior and a member of MAC’s executive board, agreed. “Black excellence is what shapes us People of Color (POC) back then and [now], but others don’t see that because they are not being taught the right from wrong.”
It has been almost 402 years since the first slave ship landed on American shores. In those 402 years, a much has happened. But outside of Black History Month, Black history is seen in its totality when it should be.
“Black history is often overlooked in our society and there needs to be a designated time to reflect on our past and appreciate our accomplishments,” stated Artis. “The lasting impact that Black people have made to build this country is not going to just disappear after February, but is present in our lives every day.”
And that history — the good, the bad and the ugly — should be properly appreciated because Black History is American History.
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