Black Lives Matter. Breonna Taylor. George Floyd. This year, more so now than ever, setting aside a month to contemplate the contributions of Black people to both America and the world is both honorable and needed. In the context of the recent protests for civil rights and the improvement of the historic disenfranchisement and discrimination against African-Americans in the United States it is important to acknowledge that America has a complicated relationship with race. If we want to make the future a better place so that in 20 years we don’t have to reconcile ourselves with the lack of change made, we must make progress on racial equality now. The work that we all have a duty to do is a living thing. It’s an action to take- making the world a better place isn’t just something you can believe in, it’s something that must be acted on. Ideals and morals must be put into practice for them to mean anything. It’s all well and good to believe in racial equality and not actively mistreat people but there is also an obligation to be anti-racist. It is no longer enough to just not be racist—we all must take on our societal responsibility to strive towards justice, understanding, and mutual solidarity.
This year a lot of people are reconsidering their personal history with race. They might be looking to move from a passive role to an active role in Black History Month. A lot of people are thinking about Black holidays for the first time: there has been a resurgence in the celebration of Juneteenth and Kwanzaa by both Black Americans and others in a new appreciation of these holidays' cultural significance. This year for MLK day there was a move to observe the holiday as a day of service in line with the idea that it should be a “day on, not a day off”. The new Biden administration has promised to move forward with plans to put Harriet Tubman on the 20 dollar bill to replace Andrew Jackson. This is all a reaction to four years of racial tensions culminating in last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests. People want to move towards a new era. A lot of people might now be thinking: what can I do? Especially if I’m white or not Black, how can I be a better ally? What is my role in anti-racist movements? How do I observe Black History Month?
Well, understanding how and why Black History Month came to be is the first step. Black History Month is celebrated in February each year in the United States. It grew out of “Negro History Week,” which was observed on the second week of February to align with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Fredrick Douglass. The first national Negro History Week was celebrated in 1926. By 1976, after the gains of the Civil Rights Movement, it was recognized on the federal level by President Gerald Ford. The Black historian Carter G. Woodson was behind Negro History Week and intended for it to serve as a way to look at Black contributions to America that were undervalued, erased, or ignored. It’s important to recognize how Black Americans have contributed to the history of this country but more specifically how African-Americans have built this country from the ground up. African-Americans have been the effort behind wealth creation in this country, the explanation for the United States’ prosperous condition and even the very groundwork for the American Dream. All this is tied up in the unpaid labor of enslaved peoples. So Black History Month is for making sure the history of Black Americans is kept alive and acknowledged.
Americans should want to make sure that this observance isn’t just a mark on the calendar or something present in name only. Many institutions, including companies and schools, want to reassure the public that they aren't racist by paying performative lip service in the form of ads extolling their commitment to diversity. But sticking up a sign that says “Happy Black History Month” or reminders to “Honor the Contributions of Black Americans” isn’t really in line with the intent of the holiday. This kind of thing done vaguely without giving any action items is really just not practicing what you preach. So what can we do that best honors Black History Month?
My recommendation is to research a Black figure that is underrated or lesser-known, keeping Black history alive on a smaller scale. Some of my personal Black inspirations, if you aren’t sure where to start, are Fred Hampton (who was an activist and deputy chairman of the Black Panther Party), Thomas Sankara (who was an African leader and the President of Burkina Faso who lead the nation in its postcolonial years), and Angela Davis (who is a living Black history figure and a leading academic as well as a very influential Black power activist). Besides getting to know new figures you might also want to reconsider your understanding of Black historical figures who you may only know the minimum about or who were whitewashed when they were taught to you. A lot of people learn about Martin Luther King Jr. without hearing about his work in reducing poverty or learn about Harriet Tubman without knowing about her role as a General in Civil War raids that freed slaves. Even the way things are taught matter: often the framing of a story like Rosa Parks of refusing to get up to let a white man sit is painted as a spontaneous decision and not civil disobedience by a longtime activist. If you learn better visually, the documentary “13th” is a digestible way to understand Black history through the lens of criminalization. It really is a communal responsibility to keep Black History alive and make sure we are working to remedy our own blindspots or inherent biases—even at the highschool level.
I’ll leave you with a quote from Huey Newton: “The revolution has always been in the hands of the young. The young always inherit the revolution.”