Every February, we celebrate 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 2013, some wonder why we still celebrate it. After all, we have Barack Obama, our first African American president; Eric Holder, our first African American U.S. Attorney General; and Rep. James Clyburn (D. SC) our third highest ranking Congressional Democrat. As I reflect on what Black History Month means, I have mixed emotions.
We learn from our history. Winning the future depends on understanding our past. African Americans are the citizens whose labor, blood, sweat, tears and deaths helped make America 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.
The first African American came to the U.S. in 1480 as a free man. Blacks became citizens in 1868 with the passage of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. constitution. Yet, blacks were treated like second-class citizens for many years to follow. Many black citizens, who obtained a college degree before the civil rights movement, still had to work jobs as elevator operators in federal buildings 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 government assistance as white farmers. The black farmers' 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.
When I think of Black History Month, I reflect on the fact that black history was often deleted in the history books or inaccurately portrayed in the same books. With the emphasis on standardized testing in the present school system, many students today have very little understanding of U.S. history, including black history.
Black history is ever evolving from the 1400s to the present. More than a month-long celebration of the accomplishments of blacks in history, I wish there was a way to teach all Americans about African Americans' struggle for freedom and equality that still exists today.
There is still a need for Black History Month, but something far more substantial beyond a month long celebration is needed. Black History Month is needed:
• When the attitudes towards the lives of 300 black children killed by gun violence in Chicago in the past three year are treated differently from 20 first graders killed in Newtown, Connecticut;
• When the conservative leaders of our country try to deny many blacks the right to vote through unnecessary voter ID laws and unnecessary IDs;
• When the prison system is overflowing with more black males than any other race or ethnicity.
• When many young black males have a direct pipeline from the school house to the jail house;
• When blacks who have completed their prison terms and paid their debt to society are disenfranchised from voting;
• When the black unemployment rate is almost twice that of the country's average;
• When the sub-prime mortgage industry targeted blacks causing a disproportionate number of blacks to lose their homes through foreclosure;
• When affirmative action is still needed to ensure a level playing field for blacks;
• When Trayvon Martin, an African American teenager, is shot and killed while returning home because of suspicious activity based on the color of his skin;
Until we perfect our union, rid it of racism, and Dr. King's dream of a beloved community becomes a reality, we will continue to need Black History Month. I only wish we could go far beyond Black History Month and cure what ails us as a society.