Every February, we celebrate Black History Month. It started in 1926 by Dr. Carter G. Woodson as Negro History week. In 1976, it became Black History month. And in 2013, some wonder why we still celebrate it. After all, we have Barack Obama, our first African American president, Eric Holder, our first African American U.S. Attorney General and Rep. James Clyburn (D. SC) our third highest ranking Congressional Democrat. As I reflect on what Black History month means, I have mixed emotions.
We learn from our history. President Obama, in his 2011 State of the Union speech, said he wants Americans to win the future. Winning the future depends on understanding our past. African Americans are the citizens whose labor, blood, sweat, tears and deaths helped make America a great country. Americans know the story of Ellis Island and immigrants. Yet, many do not know that African Americans were in America before the Mayflower landed in the 1620.
The first known African American came to the US in 1480. Blacks became citizens in 1868 with the passage of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. constitution. Yet, blacks were treated like second class citizens for many years to follow. Many black citizens, who obtained a college degree before the civil rights movement, had to work jobs as elevator operators in federal buildings because there were few jobs available for college educated blacks, due to racism and discrimination. Black farmers who toiled the land were denied the same benefits and government assistance as white farmers. The black farmers’ recent settlement addressed many years of wrongdoing. While no longer treated like second class citizens, as during the civil rights era, America still strives for a more perfect Union with her African American citizens.
When I think of African American history month, I reflect on many Americans, both whites and blacks, who do not know the history of black Americans. Our history was often deleted in the history books or portrayed inaccurately in the same books. With the emphasis on standardized testing in the present school system, many students today have very little understanding of history, including black history. And every year, not just black history month, I learn new facts about black history, previously hidden from the books.
This year, we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s March on Washington. Black history is ever evolving from the 1400’s to the present. More than a month long celebration of the accomplishments of blacks in history, I wish there was a way to teach all Americans about African Americans’ struggle for freedom and equality that still exists today.
There is still a need for Black history month but something far more substantial beyond a month long celebration is needed. An understanding of black history is needed:
- When the attitudes towards the lives of 300 black children killed by gun violence in Chicago last year are different from 20 first graders killed in Newtown, Connecticut:
- when the conservative Republican leaders of our country try to deny many blacks the right to vote through bogus voter ID laws and unnecessary ID’s;
- when the prison system is overflowing with black males who make up only approximately 6% of the overall population but over 40% of the prison population;
- when young black males have a direct pipeline from the school house to the prison;
- when blacks who have completed their prison terms and paid their debt to society are disenfranchised from voting;
- when the black unemployment rate is almost twice that of the country’s average;
- when the sub-prime mortgage industry was targeted at blacks causing a disproportionate number of blacks to lose their homes through foreclosure;
- when affirmative action is still needed to ensure a level playing field for blacks;
- when Trayvon Martin, a teenager, is shot and killed while returning home because of suspicious activity based on the color of his skin;
Until we perfect our union, rid it of racism and Dr. King’s dream of a Beloved Community becomes a reality, we will continue to need Black history month. I only wish we could go far beyond Black History month and cure what ails us as a society.
Washington, DC based Debbie Hines is a former prosecutor and founder of LegalSpeaks, a progressive blog on legal-political issues with an impact on race and gender. As a legal and political commentator she has appeared in national, international and local media including the Michael Eric Dyson Show, local NBC, ABC and CBS affiliates, RT TV, CBC- Canadian TV and XM Sirius radio. Her works have appeared in the Baltimore Sun, Washington Post, Washington Times, and NPR, among others. She also contributes articles to the Huffington Post and the Women’s Media Center.