It’s less than a week until Black History Month, an honorary month created to learn about and recognize important historical figures and accomplishments of Black Americans and those around the world. This year, I want to look at the history of Black History Month itself, how people celebrate it, and what I’ll be doing (and an easy thing you can do too!) to learn more about Black history this February.
Black History Month was officially announced nationwide by President Gerald Ford in 1976, but it had precursors that were celebrated by Black and African Americans since the 1920s. It was 1926 when historian Carter Woodson and the organization he founded, the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (now called the Association for the Study of African American Life and History) first celebrated Negro History Week, which took place the second week of February. Their goal was to raise awareness for Black history, particularly in public schools. They had minor successes, getting three state education departments and a few city school districts to agree to teach Black history in their February curriculum. In following years though, they had great success, and over the next few decades many states and cities around the country jumped on board. In 1970 the Black students at Kent State were the first to celebrate Black History Month instead of just a week, and by 1976 when President Ford announced it nationwide, it was already being celebrated at schools, universities, and businesses all around the country.
Black History Month was designed by Black Americans and was largely celebrated and championed for Black Americans as a time for coming together and encouraging education as a means toward equality. It has been celebrated in a variety of ways, including learning one’s own family history, seeking out Black musicians, poets, and other artists to appreciate, and advocating for the rights of Black Americans in the workplace, government, and more. Some have criticized this practice and instead advocated for Black history to be taught in conjunction with other topics all year long, but many that celebrate it still see Black History Month as a way to draw special attention to the unique history and needs of Black people in the United States. As time has passed too, Black history is often taught throughout the year in addition to the special focus placed on it in the month of February.
Over the decades many white Americans have taken to celebrating the month as well, either through schools and universities or through their own interest. These celebrations have taken a similar form, including seeking out artists, learning about historical figures, and using the month as a catalyst to create change in their own lives, workplaces, and communities. This can be a problem, though, when people are only willing to learn about or advocate for change for Black Americans during one month, then forget about it the rest of the year. That’s why it is important to use the new knowledge you gain during the month and apply it to your life in the long term. Found a new Black artist you enjoy? Buy their music or stream them on Spotify any time of the year. Donated to a Black-led nonprofit? Consider setting up a monthly donation, if you’re able. Read a book on anti-racism in February? Read another, or consider how you can practice applying what you learned in your own life and your community.
This year I briefly considered doing a reading challenge similar to the Latinx-a-thon I did during Hispanic Heritage Month, but I haven’t been reading as fast or as often as I was then, and I didn’t want to stress myself out by trying to finish a long, difficult reading list by a certain deadline. Instead, I am going to be reading based on the 2021 theme: The Black Family. I am going to challenge myself to read one fiction book and one nonfiction book that centers around Black families, and hopefully continue reading a few more with this theme throughout the year. I’m also going to be participating in Rogue Reads, a countywide program with books by Jacqeline Woodson and programs that discuss racism, family dynamics, and more! If you’d like to join me, or just learn more about Black history and this year’s focus on Black families, check out Rogue Reads, or try a book from this list!