The history of our country contains all sorts of moments to be celebrated, mourned and remembered. But the history of our country and how the story is told is, actually, a particular choice made by historians, policymakers, educators and others who have some kind of social power. Actually, there are many stories -- and not just one narrative -- that make up our country’s complex history. As historian and educator Howard Zinn said, “...a historian (or a journalist, or anyone telling a story) [is] forced to choose, out of an infinite number of facts, what to present, what to omit. And that decision inevitably reflects, whether consciously or not, the interests of the historian.”
One way to help share another side of our complex story and shape the “interests of the historian” has been to recognize the cultural contributions of communities of color. While in many ways these time-based commemorations are symbolic, they do also provide an important opportunity to focus on the diverse parts of our collective story as a nation. And, quite honestly, symbols contain powerful truths.
Our Black History Month heritage dates back to the early part of the 20th century, when the Black community celebrated the February birthdays of both Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, two prominent supporters of civil rights and fair and equal treatment for all persons. But initially, the celebration only spanned one week. In the early 1970s, students and professors at Kent State University proposed a month-long celebration and recognition to honor the breadth and depth of this history.
Slowly, this expanded timeframe started to take root across the country. President Gerald Ford praised the idea of expanding the recognition from a week to a full month, saying that all Americans should "seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history."
Lest we forget, a key challenge to remember is that these historical commemorations are tied to our country’s long history of systemic racism and subjugation. While it can be tempting to view these symbolic memorials as simply another part of a broad, national, and univocal history, we need to keep in mind that these commemorations are borne out of tragedy, strife and deep pain (as we’ve witnessed recently with the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, to note just a few examples).
Attempts to attenuate that tragic reality are dishonest and disingenuous. A similar “watering down” of history happens with figures like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. That temptation can get in the way of an honest and critical assessment of some of our country’s worst sins and how we address that history moving forward.
As a university community that is deeply committed to the values of diversity, equity and inclusion, I encourage all of us to view our collective story as an “already and not yet.” That is, Black History Month highlights important happenings from the past that offer sobering lessons, and these lessons should empower and inspire us to create an equitable community that does not exist yet.
There are so many high-quality programs during Black History Month through the Ledonia Wright Cultural Center and other diversity-focused departments on campus. I strongly encourage you to check out these events and engage as fully as you can.