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Why Black History? 

Updated: Jan 5

Untaught history needed to complete nation's history

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Op-ed (Published on January 26, 2023)

Author: Dr. RL Booker

Editor: Veronica Mobley

“Blacks should not get their own month because this is only divisive”. 

“I’ll cancel Black History Month if I am elected governor”. 

“Black History Month is offensive, unfair, maybe illegal”. 

These are all statements made post-summer 2020.

The Florida Board of Education recently rejected an Advanced Placement high school African American Studies course, saying it "lacks educational value."

On the same day, the Florida College System presidents released a statement that denounced critical race theory (CRT), as well as what they referred to as "woke" diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) training. Some may ask, what does banning CRT and rejecting an AP African American studies class have to do with Black History Month?

Photo of Dr. Nikki M. Taylor, chair of Howard University's history department
Dr. Nikki M. Taylor, chair of Howard University's history department

Dr. Nikki M. Taylor, the chair of Howard University's history department, stated that “a solid understanding of how African Americans have shaped America, its history, laws, institutions, culture and arts, and even the current practice of American democracy, sharpens all knowledge about our nation.” From an individual perspective, Delilah Andrews, a Black mother of two who resides in Florida, stated that she was saddened by this decision, “because some of the children, don't get that African American history at home.”

Unfortunately, we continue to see attacks on Black history and culture. So now (and again), it becomes even more important to deconstruct and explain why the Black community and its allies will always value and celebrate Black History Month.  

President Gerald Ford in 1976 issued a proclamation by which he designated the month of February as 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," Ford said. This proclamation was largely a product of the labor and sacrifices of those who fought for civil and human rights for all U.S. citizens, but, as an often-untaught history will show us, Black History Month pre-dates the civil rights movement.

Photo of ASNLH 20th anniversary planning committee, 1936 (Courtesy Chicago Public Library)
ASNLH 20th anniversary planning committee, 1936 (Courtesy Chicago Public Library)

In 1915, Carter G. Woodson, William B. Hartgrove, George Cleveland Hall, Alexander L. Jackson, and James E. Stamps, worked diligently to create the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH). Woodson’s vision for this organization was to promote the scientific study of Black life that acknowledged and promoted the contribution of Black Americans to social, political, and economic structures in the U.S. His passion for informing the masses was because the Black experience had gone unrecognized in discourses of American History up until that time. In 1924, the Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc., which Woodson was a member of, created Negro History and Literature Week. The first Negro History week was in February of 1926.

According to the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, Black history month began as a way to commemorate two men (Fredrick Douglas and Abraham Lincoln) who played a significant role in freeing enslaved Black people, but "Woodson believed that history was made by the people, not simply or primarily by great men. Rather than focusing on two men, the black community, he believed, should focus on the countless black men and women who had contributed to the advancement of human civilization." That vision is the foundation of Black History Month proclaimed by President Ford.

Black Americans have always known that we significantly contribute to this country, but President Ford's proclamation established an imperative to begin educating all U.S. citizens about the history and role of African Americans. Now let me ask you: How many Americans have learned about the ASNLH's role in establishment of Black History Month in public schools? Or, is it President Ford's proclamation that is given sole credit in most history books? Neither I nor any person I've asked learned about the organization in public schools. Even teaching about the establishment of Black History Month brings us back to whitewashing. Isn't it time we ask ourselves why this keeps happening? Aren't we past this?

I will concede there are good people, with influence and power, working to fully understand and uplift communities that for centuries have been intentionally targeted, and denied resources and opportunities. Unfortunately, there are also people working through legislation and executive orders to whitewash or erase the real and ugly past of enslavement, land theft, exclusion, hate, racism, homophobia, xenophobia, sexism, religious oppression and more.

Photo of A display of banned or censored books at Books Inc. in Alameda, California. (Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images)
A display of banned or censored books at Books Inc. in Alameda, California. (Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images)

Let us not forget how the 1950s McCarthy-era book bans, which sought to dictate what people could and could not learn, ultimately spurred on the civil rights and anti-war movements. At the time, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. challenged U.S. citizens by asking if "we will remain awake through this world-shaking revolution and achieve the new mental attitudes which the situations and conditions demand."

I believe banning history and books should be a crime against humanity. Nonetheless, lawmakers who push forward these bans may unknowingly awaken the social consciousness we all need to illuminate the undeniable fact that certain parties in the U.S are still trying to erase the perspectives and stories of Black Americans from U.S. history.

I challenge the Northwest Arkansas community and our nation to learn more about the Black community and Black history. As we have seen, our own education may have disregarded vital perspectives and left many of us not knowing the whole story. And unfortunately, now our children's education may be following in those same hollowed-out footsteps.

In February, many people will happily post a feel-good quote from Dr. King while actively using their own vote and influence to fight against his life's purpose. The deeper question we should all reflect upon is why the masses in America haven't yet fully understood, embraced or heeded the 100-year-old challenge from Carter G. Woodson.




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