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Why do we need a Black History Month?

by SHOLEH PATRICK
| February 21, 2023 1:05 AM

In what increasingly feels like the decade of pushback culture, Americans are putting everything on the table. Why do we have this? Why do we need it? Why should we do it?

Why bother with Black History Month (or any other race/ethnicity)? Why isn’t there a White or Anglo-Saxon history month?

History’s enduring stories worldwide have always been preserved by conquering majorities. Theirs become the dominant narratives, theirs are the subconscious normalcy. The presumed perspectives.

What’s both wonderful and challenging about the United States is that, while one race (and within it, a Western European heritage) has been and still is dominant, other groups in growing numbers also define America. Over time, as the influence and societal participation of minority groups rise closer to the level of the majority, efforts to bring awareness to other identities, histories, and perspectives become stronger.

And more resisted.

The goal, ideally, is not to overshadow. The goal is to broaden the narrative, to add to — not replace — the commonly known facts and experiences which already are emphasized in American culture (i.e., why we have not White history month; it’s already emphasized). That starts by catching up; by adding to the common narrative what is lesser known or lesser recognized.

One way to do that is with concentrated awareness efforts in media, similar health related awareness months and other ethnicities we celebrate, such as awareness months for Irish, Italian, Hispanic, Arab, Asian heritage. Black History Month is an annual celebration of achievements by African (and other Black) Americans, a time to recognize their central role in U.S. history, which is about a lot more than slavery.

Focusing on the word “history,” let’s begin at the beginning. In September 1915, about half a century after the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery, Harvard-educated historian Carter Woodson and prominent minister Jesse Moorland founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH), an organization dedicated to researching and promoting achievements by Black Americans and peoples of African descent. In 1926, they started a national Negro History Week in schools and communities, choosing the second week of February to honor Abraham Lincoln’s and Frederick Douglass’s birthdays (the NAACP was also founded on the centennial anniversary of Lincoln’s birthday). President Ford proclaimed the first Black History Month in 1976 to “honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history,” officially recognized by every succeeding U.S. president.

Beyond famous civic leaders, musicians, actors, and other household names, Black Americans’ important contributions to American life include many “hidden figures” (if you haven’t seen the award winning movie, please do). Lesser known names in Black history who made important contributions to American life include war heroes (Vernon Baker, Tuskegee Airmen, Harlem Hellfighters); scientists and doctors responsible for saving and improving lives (Otis Boykin, Charles Drew, Daniel Hale, Marie Maynard Daly); mathematicians and physicists who helped make space exploration possible and survivable (Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, Arthur Cuthbert Walker); and inventors such as Garrett Morgan (gas mask and traffic light), Fredric Arnold (folding chair) and Alexander Miles (automatic elevator doors).

The list is long.

Back to those initial questions, let’s be frank: Much like sparring siblings it’s human nature to feel your own light dimmed when another gets the spotlight. We’re all on this Earth together and it’s the American way to agree we each have equal value. But when one (person or identifiable group) has gotten more attention, has more political clout or representation, or is better favored or has societal disadvantages common to their group, either officially or unofficially and for long periods, it takes time to even things out. It also takes conspicuous effort.

Beyond headlines, some of the hints that we haven’t yet achieved that are more subtle to the majority, but stand out to minorities experiencing it. Unequal focus (or total absence) in textbooks. A sea of the same faces on TV, in legislatures, on executive boards.

When your face looks like those who have power and influence over your life, or even just sitting in a room, you notice less. When yours is different, it can feel intimidating, even if that’s not what anyone intends. Awareness campaigns help support and affirm people in minority positions, serving as a reminder that all people and all voices contribute to the American experience.

That’s one explanation. The other is simply natural pride of identity. I often chat with melting pot Americans born and raised here who say “I’m Italian (Colombian, Indian, Irish, German)” with great feeling. It’s almost instinctual to want to know about your heritage and adopt that as part of your identity you present to the world. We enjoy socializing with, celebrating, and talking about those roots, characteristics, and contributions. Awareness months provide a basis to celebrate it and share it with others — whether that’s about race, ethnicity, religion or tradition.

Black history, along with every other variety in this nation full of wonders, is American history.

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Sholeh Patrick is a Cherokee-Irish-Persian-American columnist for the Hagadone News Network. Email sholeh@cdapress.com.