February is 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 2011, some wonder why we still celebrate it. After all, we have our first African American president, our first African American attorney general, the third highest ranking congressional Democrat is an African American and the former chairman of the Republican National Committee is African American. Many argue that we are now living in a post racial society. So why do we celebrate Black History month? Recently, at the opening of the African American history exhibit “America I Am “ in Washington, DC, Susan Norton, Director of the National Geographic Museum, said African American history is “world history, national history and local history”. That’s one reason why we celebrate Black History month.
Just as we celebrate Women’s history in March, we celebrate and embrace Black History month. We celebrate the good, the bad, the taught and the untaught. And 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 people whose labor, blood, sweat, tears and deaths helped make American a great country. Americans know the story of Ellis Island and immigrants. Yet, many do not know that the richness of African American history in America started before the Mayflower landed and long after slavery ended.
Understanding the past requires knowledge of it. In 1923, W.E.B. Du Bois poised the question of “where would America be without her Negro people? ” I wonder where America would be without:
- The courage of Rep. John Lewis, who endured beatings by white police during the Selma , Alabama “Bloody Sunday” civil rights march
- The dream of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
- The music of Michael Jackson
- The dance of Alvin Ailey
- The courage of Harriet Tubman
- The judgment of Thurgood Marshall
- The rock and roll of Chuck Berry
- The jazz of Ella Fitzgerald
- The oratory of Frederick Douglas
- The defiance of Rosa Parks
- The visionary leadership of Barack Obama
- The directness of Spike Lee
- The comic genius of Richard Pyror
- The intellectual genius of W. E. B. Dubois
- The voice of Oprah Winfrey
- The determination of Dr. Dorothy I. Height
- The fighting spirit of the Tuskegee Airmen
- The resilience of the African slaves who survived the journey to America to build America
African Americans came to the US before the Mayflower landed in the early 1600’s. Blacks became citizens in 1868 with the passage of the 14th Amendment to the US constitution. Yet, blacks were treated like second class citizens for many years to follow. Many blacks, who obtained a college degree before the civil rights movement, still had to work jobs as elevator operators in a federal building 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 assistance as white farmers. Their recent settlement addressed 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.
Knowing and understanding the history of African Americans will bring America closer to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream of a Beloved Community. Until Dr. King’s dream becomes a reality and we perfect the Union, let’s continue to celebrate Black History month.
Debbie Hines is a trial lawyer and legal/politcal commentator who writes on race and gender in law and politics. She frequently appears on TV, radio and in print. She is a contributing writer for the Huffington Post. She holds a Juris Doctorate from George Washington University Law School and a BA from the University of Pennsylvania.