It’s February, and we all know what that means: Black History Month. The shortest month of the year also contains two popular holidays, Valentine’s Day and President’s Day. Unfortunately, many people in the U.S. forget about the importance of Black History Month in preparation for the candy-covered love day and the day off for presidents Lincoln and Washington. Black History Month is needed to remind us of the battles we have won and still face for the future, but also as an educational tool about the American cultures often ignored in history classes.
The celebration was originally delegated as a one-week commemoration. Carter Godwin Woodson, a black historian and professor, chose the second week in February because of the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. Black History Month was designated for February during the U.S. bicentennial in 1976.
Critics of the celebration argue that it is unnecessary to devote an entire month to the color of a person’s skin. Opponents believe the celebration just perpetuates more racism as a result. Others believe that the civil rights war is over, and that all Americans should be treated equally. These views gloss over the importance that African Americans play in American history and the future. They also ignore the reality that still exists today.
I enjoy Black History Month because I like holidays and unspoken American histories. It’s a change of pace to discuss the unspoken, such as the controversial history of slavery and the challenges of reversing dangerous minority stereotypes. February reminds us that racism still exists, even in liberal Portland. It also tells us that there is hope in the future.
Black History Month is also important because it recognizes the achievements of Americans toward reversing the discrimination of all persons. The recent deaths of Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King reminded us that the struggle fought in the civil rights movement wasn’t that long ago.
Slavery and segregation are big parts of U.S. history, but are glossed over in history classes. “Separate but equal” was still the law of the land in Southern schools and public places as recently as 50 years ago. The landmark school segregation case Brown v. Board of Education was passed in 1954, but it took several years to ensure complete integration of the schools.
Today, the histories of minorities in the U.S. are still vastly ignored. I remember taking U.S. history as an undergraduate with a feminist professor. We talked about the election between William Jennings Bryan and McKinley and Taft for a week. Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King only received a day’s mention.
There are black heroes in today’s culture as well. Still breakdancing, hip-hop music and graffiti as artistic outlets are dismissed in popular culture. Mainstream rappers such as Juvenile and Nelly are a watered-down version of the musical genre and show the stereotypes of the culture. The devotees of the movement aren’t unrepentant bling fashionistas. Graffiti and tagging are criminal offenses in the U.S. and are usually associated with gang activity, not with the hip-hop culture. The recognition of this movement as an art form hasn’t arrived yet.
Black History Month is important because it shows us how far we’ve come in American history, but also how far we still must go. History classes teach about the African American culture as far as the civil rights movement and slavery are concerned, however, we should all be aware that there is more to our own history than events from a half-century ago.
It’s a little lofty and unrealistic to think that Americans will all eventually be equal without discrimination or prejudice. Racial profiling and stereotypes exist for all ethnic backgrounds and genders in different ways. Black History Month takes us a small step closer to the reversal of racism through nationwide education and celebration.