By Jim Carrier
The idea of celebrating African American history arose during one of the ugliest periods in America — the Jim Crow era. Millions of black citizens in much of the country were denied their full citizenship, including the right to vote, a free choice at restaurants or hotels, and even the courtesy of being buried in “white” cemeteries. Life for a person of color in the U.S. was filled with daily indignities.
In 1926, when lynchings were still going on in the South, Carter Woodson, the son of former slaves whose PhD from Harvard was only the second earned by a black American, proposed setting aside a week of public school classes to focus on black history. Only three state education departments, Delaware, North Carolina and West Virginia, and two city school systems, Baltimore and Washington, participated in the first Negro History Week.
“If a race has no history, it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thoughts of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated,” Woodson wrote.
Kent State University expanded the commemoration to a month in February 1970, and the rest of the country followed with academic research, books, music, museums, and an astounding discovery of hidden American history dating back to the arrival of the Africans in the Western Hemisphere.
Though criticized by some as a token celebration, Black History month serves as a reminder that the United States was never a “white” country, and that its culture and history is a rich blend of many colors and stories. This year, which marked the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination, and the rise of the white supremacist activism on campuses, black history month carries special importance.
Every February, college across the U.S., often led by their librarians, create an intellectually challenging series of seminars, speeches, activism, and entertainment. Here’s a sample of this year’s events:
At Chapman college in Orange, Calif., where only two percent of the study body is black, the month is led by the Black Student Union as both an effort to strengthen their community and to educate their white colleagues. Arianna Ngnomire, one of the Black Student Union members, said their effort has helped her fit into Chapman. Union member Shania Verse, a sophomore, said she had never celebrated the month because her home territory was predominately black. “It became important to me in college…to show my campus my culture,” she said.
The student newspaper at Northwestern University in Chicago took the school’s administration to task for a lack of interest in Black History Month. An editorial claims that most activity is student generated — and most of that led by black student groups.
“NU has failed to take advantage of the chance to show real institutional support for black students. Friction between African American students and Northwestern goes back to the 1960s. Yet a recent task force reported that black student student satisfaction “continues to lag behind that of every other racial and ethnic group on campus.”
At Texas A&M black student groups take the lead in celebrating Black History Month. Programs range from movies, debates, and an event about black inventors. “We don’t always learn what we’re supposed to know from our textbooks and history teachers,” said Krystal Park, a junior majoring in philosophy who heads TEAACH — Teaching Everyone African American Culture and Heritage.
In Canada, the University of Ottawa is ramping up its black history program after admitting that it had become nearly invisible. Canada one of only three countries outside the U.S. that mark a month for black history (Great Britain and the Netherlands are the others). It was not until 1995 that the House of Commons official recognized Black History month. According to the CBC it is difficult to find mention of black history on the Web site of the Canadian Ministry of Heritage.
“Inclusive support of Black History Month also means recognizing and amplifying the stories of those Black Canadian who may not fit our traditional and preconceived notions of Black history, which includes Black persons with disabilities, queer and trans Black people,” according to an editorial in the student newspaper, the Fulcrum.
Elsewhere, James Meredith, who integrated Ole Miss in 1961, will speak at Calhoun Community College in Decatur, Alabama on Feb. 12. “Unapologetically Black” is the motto for this year’s black history events at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City. In one program, student organizations recited black history on stage while the ETSU Gospel Choir sand. Black Women are being honored this year at Brock University’s James Gibson Library display in Catharines, Ontario.
At Binghamton University, student artists are leading the celebration with a “Sip ’n’ Paint art event. At Appalachian State, a special effort has been made this year to celebrate and honor LGBT persons who are black, Latino, Asian, Pacific Islander, or Native American. As members of a “double minority,” these individuals often suffer from self-esteem and identity issues. According to a Gallup pole, 4.6 percent of African Americans identify as a member of the LGBT+ community, according to The Appalachian.