Black History Month, Through My Eyes

Wednesday, February 22, 2017 - 5:08pm

Black History Month, for me, is by far the most meaningful month of the year. A time to reflect on the triumphs, tragedies and teachable moments of the past, while celebrating the influential people, institutions and events of today. It is also a time to look to the future and imagine a society greater than the one we currently inhabit. Since President Gerald Ford commissioned February as Black History Month in 1976 as a part of the United States’s bicentennial, students in schools all over the country have read books on the civil rights movement, written reports on some of our most remembered pioneers and seen such programs as the biographic cartoon “Our Friend, Martin.”

Today, the entire month of February is Black History Month. However, prior to 1976, just the second week of the month was known as Negro History Week. It was established in 1926 by prominent Black historian Carter G. Woodson and others within the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, an organization Woodson co-founded. ASALH thought the many contributions of African Americans to our society, both past and present, should be remembered and celebrated. I concur.

I personally feel a certain affirmation of my own existence, and of my ancestors, during the month of February. Living in a country that does not always value Black lives, I find it somewhat heartening that people will at least pretend to for these 28 days. Every year the president will issue a proclamation on the first day of February, declaring it Black History Month. Television stations will run documentaries, radio show hosts will interview historians and experts, and politicians will selectively quote activists. For this one month, it is not controversial to be Black.

Black History Month is not without its critics. There has always been a chorus of uninformed bigots repeating the line: “Why isn’t there a white history month?” This inquiry is extremely problematic, and in my opinion, not at all genuine. The history of this nation has been whitewashed for the appeasement of the masses. We celebrate Christopher Columbus, Thomas Jefferson and Ulysses Grant for their contributions to the advancement of exploration, the establishment of individual liberties and the reunification of our nation, but we often forget the enslaved Black Europeans and Americans who helped them succeed.

Black history is being made — by our leaders — right before our eyes. It was monumental for us to see the United States’s first Black chief executive take the oath of office eight years ago, and former President Barack Obama’s name is guaranteed to grace the pages of textbooks for centuries to come. However, after his election had been contextualized as being within a political climate that was “post-racial,” it was just as monumental when then-First Lady Michelle Obama noted that she wakes up “every morning in a house that was built by slaves” during her Democratic National Convention speech last summer.

Black history is being made by athletes. This year, Serena Williams cemented her legacy as the greatest tennis player of all time by winning her 23rd Grand Slam title. She has won more Grand Slam single titles than any other person in the Open era — male or female. At the 2016 Olympics in Rio De Janeiro, gymnast Simone Biles stunned the world when she took home four gold medals and one bronze medal.

Black history is being made by creators. Viola Davis made history this year when she garnered her third Academy Award nomination for her role in “Fences.” TV shows with majority-Black casts such as ABC’s “Scandal,” “Blackish” and “How to Get Away with Murder” and Fox’s “Empire” are dominating primetime viewership. Beyoncé, with the release of her album “Lemonade,” became the only artist in history to have her first six efforts go number one on the Billboard Hot 100. This, after controversy over her unapologetically pro-Black single “Formation” and Super Bowl performance to match. To top it all off, last year Beyoncé became the most Grammy-nominated woman in the award show’s history.

While accepting her daughter’s BET award for video of the year last summer, Tina Knowles reflected on the deaths of some of our community’s greatest artists such as Prince and Michael Jackson by saying, “I’m hoping that we will celebrate them while we are alive.” She added, “Let’s give our flowers to our artists who give so much … Let’s let them smell the flowers while they’re alive.” In other words, it is always appropriate to honor the legacy of fallen influences, but it is just as important to praise them while they are alive and still effecting change. Black History Month is our time to do just that.

History that is not remembered repeats itself. America, if for no other reason, owes it to its Black citizens to remain educated on this nation’s ugly past of enslavement, disenfranchisement and legal subjugation. This country has resolved to “never forget” the horror of the Sept. 11 attacks, the Holocaust or the attack on Pearl Harbor, yet slavery is not universally regarded in the same way. As long as there is Black History Month, our objective should be to remember the injustices committed against Black people, and work diligently so that those types of injustices never happen again. Unfortunately, we now have a president who is not quite clear of this history. President Donald Trump, during remarks commemorating the beginning of Black History Month, seemed to suggest that Frederick Douglass was somehow still alive, saying that he is “being recognized more and more” today. This, just days after claiming that renowned civil rights activist and current congressman John Lewis was “all talk.” In 1965, while protesting voting rights violations as the chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Selma, Ala., Lewis was brutalized by police. He sustained a fractured skull on the day that was eventually known as Bloody Sunday.

Black History Month should evoke joy, pain, laughter, tears, celebration and condemnation. This time of year is so important to me because it is a time to remember the past, savor the present and look toward a promising and united future. There is no doubt as to whether Black History Month should be a permanent fixture of our society. My hope is that all Americans would make a commitment to celebrate this special time with myself and others.