Every February is Black History Month but, interestingly, I don't feel as compelled to defend it this year. What do I mean defend? Well, it most definitely means that in years past I've felt an obligation to explain it or justify the annual month-long celebration of Black lives and culture, and that is honestly unfortunate.
The difference must have something to do with a shift in the national mood following an intense summer of Black Lives Matter protests, and Biden's inaugural address, during which the new president held forth that "a cry for racial justice some 400 years in the making moves us." With those remarks, Biden became the first president in my memory to speak to the national obligation to dismantle white supremacy.
Thank you, Joe—and I hope you put your political cred where your mouth is—but I have, frankly, become accustomed to the same old questions, year after year.
Why do we need a Black History Month? Who is (or isn't) Black History Month for? What happens during Black History month that we might actually describe as "significant"? I'll do my best to address these questions, which I have been asked directly in the past—I'm just a little too shrewd to believe people suddenly don't have them this year.
You might first learn about Black History Month's origins. The idea originated with historian Carter G. Woodson, best known for having published The Mis-Education of the Negro in 1933. The tenor of Black History month is still influenced by Woodson's book, in which the PhD politely but unapologetically complained, "The so-called modern education does others so much more good than it does the Negro, because it has been worked out in conformity with the needs of those who have oppressed weaker people."
Woodson initially proposed celebrating a Negro History Week each February way back in 1926. Some 50 years later, in 1976, this event officially became Black History Month, which today might be more precisely designated a month devoted to the history of the Black diaspora beginning with the Atlantic slave trade.
As far as what happens during Black History Month today, you've probably already seen an uptick of online events encouraging Black historical appreciation. You'll see it on television and in special (but limited-time-only) streaming service sections or in Facebook lists of the names and dates behind Black firsts—sometimes minor and sometimes quite important historical accomplishments: a Black individual who broke a glass ceiling, who strongly influenced some major historical event or who pioneered a field of study.
It's a month of lists, facts, lists, facts. For example:
- Jackie Robinson was the first baseball player to break the color line and play Major League Baseball in 1947.
- By 1913, Cosmetician Madame C.J. Walker became the first female self-made millionaire.
- Dr. Charles Drew organized the first large-scale blood bank.
- Black Wall Street was not a myth—it was fairly wealthy community of Black Oklahomans in the early 1900s.
- The first explorer to reach New Mexico from Spain was a North African-born slave named Estevancio (my favorite).
People want to know what they should do with this information, other than using it for a future appearance on Jeopardy!. Witticisms aside, I see nothing wrong with devoting as many historical revelations to memory as possible. Such an act won't make you a full-fledged historian, but if you devote even a few bare-bones facts to memory, I believe you will have successfully tapped into what Black History Month is truly about. You will, with slow aggregation, begin incorporating something deeper into your worldview.
Although Black History Month tends to focus on uplifting moments, its litany of accomplishments is inextricably entangled with its terrible side. The uncanny life and contibutions of the extraordinary Dr. Drew, whose medical work in the 1940s saved lives, invokes the plight of Blacks in the same era who were refused medical treatment at white hospitals. Tulsa's Black Wall Street was an extraordinary phenomenon until it was dismantled in 1921 by rampaging whites who burned the community to the ground—and if you still don't know about the Tulsa massacre despite its insertion into recent pop culture properties like Lovecraft Country and Watchmen, Black History Month is the best time to honor whatever vague commitment you made to yourself to learn more.
Black History Month lists extoll singular accomplishments that often, like Black Wall Street, were handicapped, undermined or outright brought down by animosity, jealousy and racism. Inside the lists of names and dates, you might feel the profound arc of the systemic dismantlement of Black hopes, aspirations and potential since the slave trade. Perhaps you'll begin to develop a personal relationship with the hundreds of millions gone, the few and scattered luminaries, as well as the stories that were never told, the books never written and the families sundered.
You'll start to feel a profound solemnity when considering the trajectory Black history could have taken if not for colonization, the trans-Atlantic slave trade and a Western philosophy that denied Blacks their agency, intelligence or opportunity. Black History Month is restorative justice. We celebrate the luminaries because they proved Blacks have talent, minds and genius; we celebrate ourselves, too, because all Blacks are human beings with a history.
You can also come celebrate with me at my own online Black History Month presentation, sponsored by Teatro Paraguas, this Sunday.
Darryl Lorenzo Wellington Poetry and Play Reading:
5 pm Sunday, Feb. 21. Free (but you can donate),