The tradition of Black History Month began in 1915, almost fifty years after the abolition of slavery in the United States. That year, historian Carter G. Woodson and minister Jesse E. Moorland founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life, an organization dedicated to uncovering and publicizing black achievements. In 1926, the organization sponsored a national Negro History week during the second week of February, which set the precedent for Black History Month. President Gerald Ford officially recognized February as Black History Month in 1976, requesting American citizens to “seize the opportunity to honor too often neglected accomplishments of black American in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”
There is a great necessity to recognize the widespread accomplishments and advancements of a severely oppressed people but there is an even greater need to recognize the history of struggle and strife this country subjected them to.
The tendency to romanticize Black progression when rehashing history glosses over 300 years of severe involuntary servitude, terrorism inflicted upon generations of families through bombs and lynching along with assaults on black identity through segregation. Doing so, to purposefully highlight the same trite narratives of pacifism and peace as the only successful means to acquire equality does a disservice to the legacy of sheer strength, endurance and intentional action embodied by the Black American experience.
Focusing on great historical figures without complete context of the strides they took and roles they played provides a fraction of the story. Thus, history is reframed to portray intentional actions of defiance as incidental occurrences.
Rosa Parks, a familiar name for those with even the most basic knowledge of Black History, is commonly portrayed as an elderly, fragile seamstress who couldn’t bare to give up her seat on a segregated Montgomery city bus after a long day of work. However, these depictions fail to acknowledge her deeds as a leader for the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). She headed the Youth Division of the organization for years, organizing methods for black youth to challenge Jim Crow laws, such as checking books out of whites-only libraries. Parks was not the first black woman to defy the rules of Montgomery’s bus segregation laws but her unique stature locally, due to her tireless efforts in the black community, garnered enough locale support to spark the 13-month bus boycott demanding the desegregation of Montgomery buses.
The efforts of Dr. Martin Luther King JR. are quite frequently hailed in discussions surrounding Black liberation, as he presented a face for the peaceful, passive non-violent movement in the quest for equality. Yet the ideals of Marcus Garvey or Malcolm X, both of whom called for black independence and liberation separate from white American existence are demonized or altogether ignored in mainstream education. The ideal of armed black self defense put forth by Robert F. Williams, president of the Monroe, North Carolina chapter of the NAACP, when he erected a rifle club to defend the local black community from racially motivated attacks from the Ku Klux Klan and others, is severely neglected in history’s recollection, though it set the foundation on which the Black Panther Party was founded years later.
Activist’s actions never occured due to coincidence and neither does history’s decision to champion particular individuals while omitting or adapting the work of others. The fight for liberation began long before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat or Dr. King led the march on Selma. Countless individuals from the era of slavery, Jim Crow, The Civil Rights movement and beyond dedicated their lives to the acquisition of social, political and economic equality and advancement for black people. They acted intentionally, through deliberate planning and execution, sacrificing their safety, security, comfort and in many cases their lives. Black History should accurately expound on the numerous accounts of calculated and conscious defiance of a system that refused to recognize the humanity or equity of a black life.
-Temi is a public relations senior