It’s officially Black History Month! While many rightfully give side-eye to the fact that there are only 28 (or sometimes 29 days) to celebrate the achievements of Black people (versus a full 30 or 31 or, ya know, 365)—which, yeah! It’s not enough!—there’s more behind the reason why Black History Month falls in February. Let me explain.
For starters, Black History Month wouldn’t exist in the way that it does now without the work of Carter G. Woodson, PhD. The Harvard grad, activist, and Black history scholar attended the 50th anniversary celebration of the emancipation of slaves in 1912, held in Ilinois, writes Daryl Scott, PhD, a professor of History at Howard University. More than 6,000 people showed up to view exhibits about the things Black people had achieved since the Emancipation Proclamation. Those crowds and the event itself inspired Woodson to start an organization dedicated to the scientific study of Black life and history, which later became the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH).
“He was committed in every way possible to uplifting the achievements of Black people,” says Kali Gross, PhD, professor of African American Studies at Emory University. “He believed, rightfully so, that this was related to ongoing Black liberation struggles.”
Additionally, he planned to publish his organization’s findings in the Journal of Negro History, which he also founded in hopes that other historians might popularize ASALH’s work. As part of his efforts to get Black history into the minds of Americans (and people all over the world), he kicked off the first-ever Negro History and Literature Week in 1926, which later became Negro Achievement Week, writes Scott.
Woodson chose the second week of February for this celebration of Black life because it fell on the birthday of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, two very important figures in Black history. He hoped that doing so would encourage teachers and historians to participate since they were likely already in on the celebrations of Lincoln and Douglass, writes Scott.
Still, Woodson wanted to ensure that Americans paid attention to more than just big names like those two men. He wanted people to get curious and learn about all parts of Black life. “His whole kind of bent was about freeing Black people’s minds and throwing off negative notions about what Black people had done and accomplished,” says Gross.
Because of his work, many progressive schools began adding more curricula about Black history, and Black history clubs began popping up across the U.S. Woodson hoped that this weeklong celebration would eventually turn into an ever-present appreciation and education about Black life—not just a week of acknowledgment.
Although he died in 1950, the popularity of this idea spread. In February 1976, President Gerald Ford said in a Message on the Observance of Black History Month, “We can seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.” Since then, every U.S. president has formally recognized and honored the celebration.
“We now know that a month is not enough. As far as it goes, we should be talking about Black history year-round,” says Gross. That’s because being educated about Black life is an important step in fighting racism and inequality.
Plus, representation is super important for the Black community, says Gross. For Black women, Kamala Harris, Amanda Gorman, Cori Bush, and Stacey Abrams are phenomenal examples of Black womanhood and Black leadership, she adds.
When it comes down to it, the visibility and telling of Black stories are important and imperative to the consciousness of our nation. Learning about Black stories, struggles, and achievements helps us understand Black culture and life and makes it possible for Black people everywhere to be inspired by those who came before them.
“Black history is American history. Highlighting this moment draws attention to it but it isn’t designed to isolate it or confine it to this month,” said Gross
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