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Black History Month: Necessary and Compelling Reasons to Celebrate It

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Over twenty years ago when I was teaching in a school in Queens, New York, where about 80% of the students were white, I put up a Black History Month display in my classroom. I also put up pictures of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln as well as reluctantly devoting one bulletin board to ubiquitous Valentine’s Day hearts (as I was begged by the young ladies in the class to do so). My Black History Month display included photos of famous black Americans, a timeline of events in black history, and posters featuring the accomplishments of black people.

When the eighth graders came in that day, I noticed several of the (white) boys taking note of the display. Out of a class of thirty one, there were two Hispanic students, one black, and one Korean; the rest were white. One of the more surly young white fellows raised his hand and asked, “Why is that up there?” I was waiting for this and replied, “February is Black History Month.”

Another kid (also white) raised his hand. “Why isn’t there an Irish History Month?” And so it began. As the month progressed, I had parents coming into my classroom (thankfully before or after school) and questioning this as well. One man who was dressed in an obviously expensive suit pointed to the pictures of the presidents and said, “That’s what this month is supposed to be about.”

I looked at Lincoln’s picture and said, “Yes, you’re right, Mr. Lincoln helped make this month possible when he freed the slaves.” The gentlemen gave me no response and left in a huff.

By the end of that month, I had some success and admittedly some failures in the process of teaching and promoting this month of recognition of black history; however, I was glad I did it. I knew these children had to be exposed to something they didn’t know anything about. They were too insulated, too misguided in their assumptions about everything to do with race, and I believed we got somewhere in those twenty-eight days, but I felt there was so much more yet to do. Twenty-plus years later, I still do.

When I wrote a piece about Dr. King last month, I almost could have predicted some of the negative reactions I would receive. The general nature of the complainants reminded me of my former students from so long ago. Basically, they said much the same thing: “Why should there be a holiday celebrating a black leader? There were great German, French, Irish, American Indian, and many other leaders; why not a day for them?” My response was usually very simple: Dr. King’s legacy is compelling as he led a wave of change that was necessary in this country. Recognition of Dr. King’s life is in honor of his accomplishments and their lasting effects on society; the honor is simply not because he is black (as some people have suggested).

Now, we are in the month of February and once again celebrating Black History Month. I can expect that some of the same people (crying over not enough hullabaloo over Columbus Day, St. Patrick’s Day, or even Arbor Day) who were annoyed about Dr. King’s day will be livid about this month long celebration. I can hear the questions: “Why do we have a Black History Month? What about Polish history? Danish history? Greek history?”

The answer, gentle readers, is very obvious. None of these other nationalities were ever brought to this country as slaves. After being captured in their native Africa, blacks were chained in the bottom of boats and brought here as a commodity. They were bought and sold with no regard for separating them from families or friends. These people were then forced into arduous service, unmercifully treated, and made to feel as if they were not any better than the master’s horse or plow. Their children were not educated, for the masters knew this would lead to revolt, and oftentimes were purposely taken away from their parents and sold as a way to break the spirit.

When one thinks of the suffering and oppression of black people who were slaves, it is even more amazing that rising out of that miasma there were so many inspirational stories, so much to be thankful for, and more than enough material for many more than one history month. Yes, all races and people have histories, but it is essential that every American study and understand black history simply because slavery was such an ugly part of our collective history. We also must recognize these resilient people who rose out of the ashes of slavery to shine a light on our culture and make the world a better place.

The many other races and cultures who flowed into our land came of their own volition. Yes, some may have been fleeing dire circumstances at home, but they sought a better life elsewhere and decided to come to America. Many may have been packed on ships in terrible conditions (as I’ve heard told on the Italian side of my family), but my great grandfather didn’t have chains around his arms and legs. He got off the boat a free man, was able to go to work in his trade of masonry, and made a wonderful life for himself and eventually his family. This was the American dream and it still beckons immigrants from all over the world, but blacks were not part of this equation of liberty and freedom that others were allowed to embrace.

I think all parents should discuss their heritage with their children, but it is imperative to also focus on people different than ourselves. It is absurd to think about establishing a “White History Month” simply because for most of our lifetimes, that was the only history being taught every month of the school year. The truth is that black history was hardly recognized let alone taught in a serious manner. Establishing February as Black History Month was a way to get school children to learn about the amazing black Americans who have done so much for their country and its culture: George Washington Carver, Fredrick Douglas, Harriet Tubman, Dred Scott, Dr. Charles Drew, Louis Armstrong, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Bunche, Thurgood Marshall, Maya Angelou, Oprah Winfrey, Sidney Poitier, Paul Robeson, Rosa Parks, Arthur Ashe, Henry (Hank) Aaron, and so many, many more.

Coretta Scott King passed away on the last day of January, a month which includes the holiday to honor her slain husband. He was a leader, a husband, a father, a preacher, and most notably a freedom fighter. Now, in her memory, during this Black History Month of February 2006, we ought to make certain that her husband’s most famous word’s (free at last) reverberate from the mountaintops of this great land to both shining seas. This is why we celebrate black history, a necessary and compelling reminder that freedom is not free; black Americans had to fight and struggle to attain it in this country. That is the most salient reason to vigorously celebrate this month every year.

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About Victor Lana

Victor Lana's stories, articles, and poems have been published in literary magazines and online. His books 'A Death in Prague' (2002), 'Move' (2003), 'The Savage Quiet September Sun: A Collection of 9/11 Stories' (2005), and 'Like a Passing Shadow' (2009) are available in print, online, and as e-books. His latest books 'If the Fates Allow: New York Christmas Stories,' 'Garden of Ghosts,' and 'Flashes in the Pan' are available exclusively on Amazon. He has won the National Arts Club Award for Poetry, but has concentrated on writing mostly fiction and non-fiction prose in recent years. He has worked as a faculty advisor to school literary magazines and enjoys the creative process as a writer, editor, and collaborator. He has been with 'Blogcritics Magazine' since July 2005 and has written well over 500 articles; previously co-head sports editor, he now is a Culture and Society editor. Having traveled extensively, Victor has visited six continents and intends to get to Antarctica someday where he figures a few ideas for new stories await him.
  • Nancy

    A local paper, the Gaithersburg Gazette, has a large editorial by a black teacher on this very subject. She maintains that the month for special celebration of black history is not only patronizing, but finds it creates a sense of entitlement & special (i.e. lowered) expectation among her black students, and resentment among the others. She also points out that lumping all blacks together is as inadequate & insulting as lumping all whites, asians, etc. together. Her summation is, this was a great idea for 30 or so years ago, but its day is past.

    I would have to agree that I think as an idea I think the day of Black History month – or any special kind of history month – is over. A recent street poll found that kids were just ignorant of why we celebrate Dr. King’s birthday as they were of why we celebrate Lincoln’s – kind of a sorry comment on equal opportunity ignorance, but then again, these are the same kids who can’t find ‘Europe’ on a map when asked to. It has nothing to do with color, anymore, and everything to do with general national educational ignorance among kids of all colors.

    I can see both sides of this argument, but I have to agree with the teacher in the Gazette, in that at this stage, I think special treatment does more harm than good, and is more insulting than inclusive.

  • “A recent street poll found that kids were just ignorant of why we celebrate Dr. King’s birthday as they were of why we celebrate Lincoln’s – kind of a sorry comment on equal opportunity ignorance, but then again, these are the same kids who can’t find ‘Europe’ on a map when asked to.”

    all the more reason to continue the highlight of black history during this month…a few knocks on sleeping noggins when the maps are rolled out wouldn’t hurt either…

    “It has nothing to do with color, anymore, and everything to do with general national educational ignorance among kids of all colors.”

    black history will always be about black people, with only peripheral mention of those of other color…when the history of the holocaust includes equal time for germans as it does jews, then we can start altering the pigment on the face of black history…
    if all facets and stages of history were highlighted in the classroom the way black history has been highlighted across the nation, all kids might better understand and take a more active interest in learning about all history…

    before we go about dismantling the focus on black history, we ought first utilize the lessons learned from that focus and teach all of history this way to all people…we ought not just stop focusing on black history during the month of february…

    as a white student of a predominantly white education, everything i learned about black history was taught by my parents until i was a senior in high school…while substantial for the time, what they had to work with in terms of available materials would make many a history teacher cry…

    black history, for all its might, focuses on the history of blacks after being brought to the united states, not before…in this, it’s a only a part of the history of blacks, just as the holocaust is a part of jewish history and the potato famine is a part of irish history (the lack of carbs also having greatly affected norway, sweden, and scotland)…

    black history, as focused on in the united states, is a crucial and large part of american history…it was also, until recently, an almost completely dismissed part of it…
    we’d have freaked out if even a single term of a single president had been overlooked in the archives that documented the birth and progress of our nation, so to suggest that the culture, language, music, literature, and history of an entire sector of the population over the course of centuries should go back into the proverbial vault is intellectual and educational nonsense…

    regardless of one’s race or opinion of the focus on black history, history itself is still everything the human race has ever done, everywhere it’s ever been, and it’s all about everyone that was…
    the means used to get people excited about any part of it is something to get excited about…those means should not be used as an excuse to pit one part of history against another…

  • Thanks for the comments, Diana and Nancy. One of the things I left out (not intentionally) was that the history books I was using back then (early 80’s) were so old that it was a disgrace. The maps in the books depicted “Belgian Congo” (which was long gone at the time) and other antiquated colonies and countries.

    The point is that even “white” history was not being give its due in the books, but there was hardly anything about blacks (except slavery during the Civil War, Dred Scott, maybe Harriet Tubman).

    The point Diana makes is well taken: history is the accounting of everything that has come before and must be all inclusive. Trouble was that blacks were treated as if they were slaves and then were quiet for 100 years until Dr. King came on the national scene. That was (and still is) inexcusable.

    March is Women’s History Month. I am in favor of creating similar celebrations of our wonderfully diverse history. Why not Native American Month? I think that would be an excellent addition. The point is Native Americans, blacks, and women have been under represented and deserve to be highlighted and honored. My opinion, of course.

  • with only 12 months in a year, one could fill a calendar quickly…and i’m all for it…even if a month was saddled with dozens of topics, one is reminded of them, free to pick a topic or two of interest, and study away!

  • There are pretty much months for everything right now. For example, there is an American Indian Heritage Month (November), a Hispanic Heritage Month (September 15-October 15), and an Asian Pacific American Heritage Month (May). Plus, there are countless months devoted to too many causes to name.

    While I think that we should be celebrating Black History Month, the problem lies in the idea that it’s “necessary.” I think the perception of this month has to change from being something that we “must” celebrate to being something that we WANT to celebrate.

  • Unfortunately, we don’t always “want” what is good for us (think fast food). I believe that nothing is being imposed on anyone but truth; there is a complex history of the black people that should be assiduously taught. This does not negate the history of others in this country because our pasts are so connected.

    I think for a “celebration” to truly be effective it needs to be official. I didn’t know about those other months, so they are not as well publicized or something.

    As I’ve said before, I feel all heritages deserve recognition, but Black History Month is necessary and compelling due to the glaring abuse imposed on blacks during slavery and afterwards as well.

  • chantal stone

    Thank you, Victor, for writing such a compelling piece. I completely agree with you about the necessity of Black History month. As a black student growing up in a predominantly white environment (I graduated in a class of about 260 students, only 4 were black) we learned next to nothing about black history or the black leaders that helped to create the country we live in today. We had the antiquated history books you mentioned before, and there was very little to supplement. I blame my parents, also, for not providing additional educational materials about my own history. I didn’t even know who Marcus Garvey or Malcolm X were until AFTER I finished high school and began to research my history on my own.

    Black History Month is still relevant because a people can not truly know where they are going until they understand where they have been. Many of the problems we see within the black community stem from the ignorance that dates back 200 years. There seems to be an accepted culture of ignorance that breeds low self-esteem and eventually self-loathing. If all schools, and all teachers embraced the need for Black History month, as you have, Victor, then maybe even a handful of students —of all races— would learn and truly appreciate the rich history of African-Americans and the important role we have played in the building of our nation.

  • Eric Olsen

    I really loved this Victor – you are blessed with perceptivity, common sense and a sweet soul. No matter how 21st century, forward-looking we want to be about our society and allow the “past to be the past,” there is still no getting around the legacy of slavery – it IS cause for certain elements of exceptionalism, as is the Holocaust for Jews

  • Kruger

    What month is white history month?

  • Kruger: Why do whites need a month?

    Victor: This is a great piece. And I’m going to encounter, I am sure, some of the same things you describe as I teach in elementary school. (I am in a masters program to become a teacher)

    Even if the only thing the month accomplishes is to increase the odds that Martin Luther King Jr will be taught about, it’s worth it.

  • chantal stone

    Kruger….in response to #9…

    did you even read Victor’s article?

    he wrote:

    “It is absurd to think about establishing a ‘White History Month’ simply because for most of our lifetimes, that was the only history being taught every month of the school year. The truth is that black history was hardly recognized let alone taught in a serious manner.”

    common sense, i think

  • Exactly. Well said.

  • Chantal, thank you for taking the time and thus saving me it (to avoid having to explain what I wrote in the post).

    What it all boils down to (and I’m sure Scott and other educators already see this) is that we need to find “teachable moments” for kids (and adults too).

    Black History Month is a “teachable moment” because it opens up opportunities for communication and discourse. Obviously, educators need this all ten months of the school year, but it doesn’t hurt to have recognized celebrations that spawn dialogue and awareness.

  • allan jones

    Many Americans forget that although Lincoln had some influence on freeing Ammerican slaves, the British made the slave trade illegal a long time before, but Americans didn’t want to comply

  • I am one who is *not* a fan of BHM. All history is everyone’s history and we should be taught all of it all year long, not only during particular months. (Of course, the thought emerges that it just figures that darkies would get the shortest month of the year.) At the same time, Mr. Lana brings up some good points. BHM does force the conversation, and I imagine there is benefit in that. But there is nothing like the sadness that hits Feb. 28 or March 1, when the brown-colored faces are taken down from bulletin boards en masse, to go back into hiding and be ignored or forgotten for 11 months…

    There’s the challenge: Obligatory “celebrations” are nice in theory, but if they aren’t heartfelt, what’s the point? How does one encourage a mainstream that doesn’t give a damn to want to celebrate something?

  • Allan is right about the slavery thing. In fact, I believe I read somewhere that the Brits would have come in on the side of the South in the Civil War (more cultural ties) if not for that repugnant practice. That would have made for an interesting conflict with the French helping the north.

    Natalie, as an educator I practiced what I preached every month of the school year. I fervently observed BHM because it was a teachable moment, but many others occur the rest of the time. One has to build on things, to make connections, and hopefully help students see that everyone’s history is entangled together.

    I always tried to get students to understand the importance of their collective past, for as William Faulkner said, “The past is not dead; it’s not even past.”

    Oh, I am remiss not to thank you, Eric Olsen, for your kinds words.

  • RogerMDillon

    Not according to Morgan Freeman if you saw his 60 minutes interview. He doesn’t want to be relegated to one month. He wants to be incorporated to American history all year long.

  • Nancy

    I remember those history books – the ones I had when I went to school back in the stone age; they were entirely about dead white males, but when one is learning about Western Civ, well, that’s predominantly who you’re dealing with as far as the power brokers are concerned. Now, World history is another matter. I remember being thrilled to read about all kinds of people (not just women) who had influence on history. I will say, that without Black History, I probably wouldn’t have read Sojourner Truth’s autobiography. The anecdote of her poor elderly parents starving to death, turned out by their former owners in their old age, is heartbreaking. But the point is, it isn’t just black people we need to read about, it’s everyone. Not ‘just’ William “Box” Brown, but Empress Wu, Lady Murasaki, the empire of Benin, and so much more. Part of the problem I think is less that white people aren’t interested, as it is that kids/people in general don’t like history in general. Maybe they don’t have the attention spans for it any more; maybe it’s just universally badly presented. But I don’t think we should narrowly celebrate just one race or one group, either black or white or hispanic. I don’t think special months for this group & that group are the answer. I personally love history, and have gone through ‘binges’ of reading just Japanese or Chinese or West African or middle eastern history/art/etc. It’s an awful lot of ground to cover … after so many years, I’m just really getting into polynesian history, art, & culture. I don’t know, but I don’t think aggrandizing one special group over everybody else is a good idea.

  • Yes, what happened to the African Americans in this country is a shame and should not have been done. However, as an educator, I would have expected you to do a little more research on your topic before you wrote your article.
    You are correct as to why we celebrate MLK Day and Black History Month, but you are wrong about a few facts:

    1. African tribes would attack one another and the victors would enslave the conquered tribe. The slaves were then used as trade with the white men. Caucasians are not completely responsible for the bondage of blacks, but they did not help the situation at all.

    2. There is an Irish Heritage month and so on. Irish Heritage Month is March, April is Jewish, and May is Asian/Pacific, and so on. If you go onto dogpile.com and type in “heritage months” or “multi-cultural months” you will see great results.

    3. There WERE other nationalities that were just as persecuted as the African Americans. When the railroads were being built, the workers were paid by nationalities and Irish and Italians were paid the lowest–the next lowest paid were the Asians. If that example did not satisfy you here is another: Holocaust.

    4. Africans were not even the first slaves! The word itself drives from the word Slavic. This is because of the Vikings attacking and capturing the Slavic people.

    I could go on forever, but I have probably already bored you. Just please remember, though there is no question that the Africans in a whole have suffered a great deal, they are not the only ones who shed tears of blood.

  • Not that I am for it, but I just found out that there IS in fact a White heritage month: January. LMAO. Go figure on so many levels. January, along with December) is known for its white snow AND January comes before February. That is just one more subtle hint from closed-minded fiends. If you want a laugh, here is the site:

    See, I am a firm believer that if you are going to do for one, you have to do for all, but that is ridiculous.

  • I think that it is really outdated and inadequate to have a black history month, or a white history month, or any other month for the matter because of the fact that there are so many races and cultures. It is simply inconvenient and unfair to assign an entire month to any one particular race because one month is such a vast amount of time on the calendar. Furthermore it sort of gives the feeling that anytime a particular race’s month comes up we have to review and revisit that particular race’s culture and history and then when the month is over we simply forget it, and then some of the individualas whose race is being celebrated might feel that they are better or more special (in many different ways) or maybe that they are very different than the other races. I think that times are changing and we as global citizens deserve a varied, comprehensive and integrated view and education on the world’s history and its many races and cultures and nationalities throughout the year and not just be obliged by our educators and the media to focus soley on one particular race’s history for an entire month.
    Respectfully yours, Diego A. from Central America.

  • Since I do not believe the problems of racism toward blacks has ceased, I still see a need for Black Heritage Month.

    Most every day is white heritage day.

    As for MLK, he brought civil rights for people of all colors, cultures and ethnic backgrounds. This is certainly a day more important than Valentine’s Day.

  • Muhammad Rahim

    AJP that was well said, but let me just add one thing…….

    African American slaves lost ALL identity due to their slave masters dehumanization techniques. We were stripped of our languages, cultures, religions and identity. Slaves of other heritage still retain their identity. But our slavemasters did a more complete job and robbing an entire people. We don’t even know what our original names were!!! 500 years later we are still calling ourselves by our masters names, SMITH JONES JACKSON JOHNSON etc, etc, etc. Yeah, other people have been slaves and robbed……but not to this degree.

    Even the native americans know their names.

  • Muhammad Rahim

    So Black History month is the least we can get out of 500 years of slavery. We can’t even trace a “HISTORY” prior to reaching the shores of America in slave ships! Jews, Native Americans and other oppressed people that were slaves have THOUSANDS of years of history to celebrate and be proud of…….

    And you have the nerve to question the need of a Black History Month? that also happen to be the shortest month of the year!

  • Thanks for the additonal comments. I think Muhammad really captures the compelling and necessary aspect here for needing to celebrate Black History Month.

    Imagine being stripped of who you are? Stolen from your home? Separated from your family? Made to learn another language and worship another god? It is the most horrendous of situations.

    That argument about the slaves being captured by other blacks and sold doesn’t matter, because the white man is the one who turned slavery into an industry.

    And, as Muhammad points out, other races no matter how oppressed or enslaved kept their identities, their cultures, their faiths. No, there is no comparison to the ruthless and methodical way the blacks were treated.

    Therefore, a 28-day month long celebration seems the least we can do.

  • American Jewish Princess

    To begin with, NEVER did I say that we should or should not celebrate Black History Month. If you want to attack me with a “how dare you” comment, then do so with what I have written.

    As far as who lost their identity and whatnot, I am not going to get into the equivelant of a high school pissing contest. I am trying my best to become multi-cultural, but at the moment I only know pieces of my own cultures. Two of my heritages that I know the most of are the Irish and the Jewish.

    Take a look at world history and not your back yard once in a while. Irish lost their language centuries ago to the English and we are just now starting to get it back. We had our homes taken right from under our feet and we were not allowed to express any part of our culture. That’s wastering it down to the extreme.

    The Jews had it at least alomst if not just as bad as the African people. We have been ridiculed and condemed for many a millenia. How many times were my people the target of slavery or mass genacide? The only thing that we had going for us was the fact that we could multiply like rabbits or hide somewhat well. As far as our history is concerned, we only know what we know about ourselves because of the Torah and the Christian Bible. If not for them my history would have been lost before the days of Moses when we were taken into Egyptian slavery. Even those books are not that adequate because they contradict eachother or one book has something that the other does not. So before you get huffy or think that your heritage history is worse than anyone else’s look at history. At least your own people sold you into slavery. We were raped, beaten, torn away from our homes, our families, our heritage to the point where our greatest history book makes no sense. We are still discovering our history. You will probably say, “well, at least you have your names” but what good is a name if you don’t know what is behind it? What it means or stands for? For decades my family and many other families did not know that they were Jewish for fear of being persecuted. Even after coming to the USA from Poland, we still hid. My children and myself up until fifteen years ago, when my grandmother was on her deathbed, did not know that we were Jewish. Fifteen years ago, that’s 46 years after the end of World War II. Do you have ANY idea what it is like to have someone just pop up and say “Oh, by the way, you’re not who you think you are. You’re Jewish.” Something like that isn’t that easy to weallow. At least you know that you are African from the moment you are born.

    “And you have the nerve to question the need of a Black History Month? that also happen to be the shortest month of the year!”-Muhammad Rahim

    Isn’t this blog site suppoded to be free of personal attacks? I think that someone needs to put their emotions in check before they begin to type.

  • Jewish American Princess

    Hey, Mohammud,

    Did your people even keep a record of any sorts of your history? Or at least try? I’m not trying to be a ass. I’m honestly asking a question because I don’t know the answer to it. Maybe that is at least part of the reason that you don’t know too much. I am just saying that because at least my people are finding artifacts because we at least tried to keep records. Am I making any sense? Like I said before, I’m not trying to be an ass.

  • Ruvy in Jerusalem

    Ah Princess,

    You touch upon an interesting and very sore point among blacks. For centuries, black history ws oral history only. There was no written language in use in Africa aside from Arabic, and that was the language of the slavers.

    The white slavers were smart enough to try diligently to deny blacks knowledge of letters. So, black history was the telling of tales from mother or father to son and daughter; oral history in the most literal sense of the word. So, when the late Alex Haley wrote the book “Roots,” he did a groundbreaking thing for black poeple.

    We Jews at least had our books and scrolls, and records of our ancestries – even though some of us were denied this due to persecution.

    Many of our own people are finally beginning to reclaim their own heritage after centuries of hiding.

  • American Jewish Princess

    Ah. See, I didn’t know that. I wanted to know before I opened my mouth and sounded unedjucated or worse. That’s why I asked the question. Thank you, Ravy, for helping me understand a little better.

  • shithead

    do you think it is necessary to celebrate Black History Month

  • Jewish American Princess

    Question: “Do you think it is necessary to celebrate Black History Month?”

    My answer is simply this: I firmly believe that it is necessary for all people to remember who they are and what their ancestors did in order for them to be allowed to have the rights and privelages that are allowed today. I also firmly believe that we as the human race in a whole have an obligation to learn and attempt to understan the various cultures that create our awesome world. If you have a certain month set aside for a particular race or culture, then you are just allowing the segregation and recism to continue. Even if you are singling out one race or culture for special recognition, it is still going to have a negative effect in some way. It’s somewhat like a “teacher’s pet syndrome” if you will.
    Another thought to take into consideration: There are only twelve months in a year and countless heritages in the world. Who’s to say that one race is deserving of a month’s worth of recognition and another is not?