A History of Black History Month

black history month

In our weekly marketing meeting a few weeks back, one of the agenda items was “Black History Month - coming up” and the topic for discussion was what should we do for it. I felt that familiar feeling in my stomach that occurs anytime this agenda item comes up. That feeling, I have since come to realise, is my own shame that this is far too often talked about in marketing meetings than other areas of my life. 

“Is Black History Month itself not a bit outdated?” I said, being smugly provocative to hide my undefined discomfort, shouldn’t we be learning about Black History all the time? Not just in a specific month of the year?” 

After a bit of back and forth around this question, it was decided that I would research more around Black History Month and write a blog about it for us. 

I set about researching the pros and cons of it according to the internet and along the way discovered a fair amount on the history of the month itself. 

I learned that it was first devised in the United States by Carter G. Woodson, a well renowned academic in the early 1900s and the son of former slaves who co-founded the ‘Association for the Study of Negro Life and History’. He received his PhD from Harvard University in 1912 and in his doctoral thesis, first discussed the idea of dedicating a specific time of the year to study Black History. He passionately and fundamentally believed that the massive contribution of Black people to the history of America was being deliberately excluded from its recorded history, and that without a history, a community is in danger of being wiped out altogether. Dedicating a time of the year to focus on the history of his people was a practical way to prevent that, although he always saw it as a means to an end

I learned that his own life achievements were pretty incredible. His parents were illiterate and his own schooling was fairly sporadic as he worked on the family farm to help bring in some much needed additional income. Yet he was hungry for education and having taught himself traditional school subjects from a young age, he eventually entered high school aged twenty and achieved his high school diploma in two years. From there, he worked as a school principal, gained a bachelor's degree from Kentucky University, became a school supervisor in the Philippines and later traveled through Asia and Europe. He completed a masters degree from Chicago University and became the second African American to attend Harvard University, eventually becoming the Dean of the faculty of Arts and Sciences. Despite these colossal achievements and having overcome so many obstacles, he was barred as a Black person from attending American Historical Association Conferences even though he was a dues-paying member. This led him to realise that white academics were at best uninterested in Black history and at worst actively hostile to publishing and discussing it which led him to found his own association for the study of Black history. 

I learned that he initially launched Black History week in 1926 in the second week of February every year (to coincide with Abraham Lincoln’s birthday) and that this was extended into a month in 1976 following the civil rights era when Black Pride was riding high.  I learned that there is a certain amount of controversy about the month itself with some Black activists arguing that its very presence supports continued segregation whilst others, (I assume on the right of American politics but that might be unfair) consider it too long. 

I learned that twenty out of fifty US states in 2014, six years into Obama’s presidency, received a failing grade for the quality of their civil rights era education and that in five states teaching on the subject was just simply non-existent, which seemed mad to me considering the history of the US (if you completely disregard the history of the native population) is pretty short. It feels odd that during my own British education, in a country with a much longer, recognised history, educators had found the time to teach us about the Tudors at least three times, the structure and design of motte and bailey castles twice, and had also taught us at least something about the history of the civil rights movement, but that a whole five states in America couldn’t squeeze the civil rights movement anywhere in the curriculum? Would that picture look worse if Black History Month didn't exist at all?

But I also learned that when I actually sit down and do some research, take the time to read, and write about Black history I fulfill Woodson’s original goal and increase my own understanding of the contribution of Black people to our global society. It makes me sad that this is still necessary, that we learn a very little or a very potted history of Black and other underrepresented groups through the school education system and beyond. But I have to reflect on how I have often approached Black History Month and say that if I want that to systematically change, it has to start with me changing my own actions and taking the time to read more about history from different people’s and communities perspectives. 

As most of my team members know, I love nothing better than trying to make an analogy out of every situation. In this case I will try and compare approaching Black History Month to approaching Valentine's day: if your relationship is healthy and in a good state, if you communicate well and are constantly curious, then Valentine's Day can either be forgotten because it just isn't necessary or, you can use it as an excuse to celebrate anyway or do something nice/interesting. On the flip side, if you are ignoring it altogether or doing something completely performative to make up for something missing in your relationship, then I think it is important to reflect and be honest about that. The same goes for Black History Month and I think the process of writing this (although I have to acknowledge the performative element) has helped me realise that my understanding of Black History (and many other areas) is no way near good enough, that that needs to change and that change starts with me. After all, if Carter G. Woodson could educate himself from scratch with no parental support, no access to the internet or even an Encarta CD ROM, there is no reason why I cannot dedicate more of my time to understanding the history and views of different communities.