We Need to Integrate Black History Month
What do you consider diverse? You may have thought you knew what the term “diversity” meant, and have probably agreed that achieving it is a worthy goal. Although diversity is a complex concept, attaining it requires curiosity and action – and, above all, inclusion – from all.
Currently, the nation is in the midst of its 39th annual Black History Month, and it is clear to me that when it comes to diversity, it is often non-minorities who feel the term applies to others, not them, thus defeating the purpose of the notion.
Black History Month has its origins 100 years ago. In 1915, 50 years after the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery in the United States, Harvard-trained historian Carter G. Woodson co-founded the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) to laud the achievements of Black Americans. In 1926, the group sponsored the first Negro History Week, choosing the second week of February to honor the birthdates of Abraham Lincoln and ex-slave Fredrick Douglass. By 1976, the week expanded to become Black History Month, or National African American History Month, an annual celebration recognizing the central role of African Americans in U.S. history. Since 1976, every U.S. president has officially designated the month of February as Black History Month. Other countries around the world, including Canada (1995) and the United Kingdom (1987), also devote a month to celebrating their own Black history.
In America, Black History Month has quietly been stretched out to a six-week retrospective that begins mid-January on Martin Luther King (MLK) Day and runs through the end of February. Delving into Black history remains important for all Americans — not just Black Americans — simply because Black history in America is American history. Period. We need to continue the commemoration because as a country we need to continue to learn about of the contributions all people have made to this country. Indeed, there are plenty of Black stories, but they are also American stories that need to be shared.
The recently published graphic novel, Strange Fruit: Uncelebrated Narratives from Black History, Volume 1, brings the stories of extraordinary, yet ordinary, African Americans from the shadows of history. The book’s author and illustrator, Joel Christian Gill, has embarked on a hashtag campaign — #28DaysAreNotEnough — to bring the limitations of Black History awareness to Twitter. Gill’s mission underscores how the marginalization of minority people’s history was once famously criticized by actor Morgan Freeman who stated: “I don’t want a Black history month. Black history is American history.”
I first encountered Gill in advance of his Philly appearance at the 23rd African American Children’s Book Fair. Lauded in publishing circles and welcomed by educators and parents, the annual February event draws thousands of local families (with young fans in tow) looking to engage with children’s book creators. I’ve documented the event’s growth, and have watched a who’s-who of children’s literature graciously sign books and encourage caretakers, and have been simply amazed at its lack of willful integration. Yup, I said it — integration — a word that is rarely bandied about in this era due to its baggage, but which still means the “incorporation as equals into society or an organization of individuals of different groups (as races).” Based on the caliber of the authors and illustrators featured at the Book Fair, you’d figure on a bum-rush from all parents with young readers. Alas, the number of visible non-Black attendees is always negligible.
Last week, the topic of “unconscious bias” was forwarded in blunt comments from FBI director James Comey who said Americans must accept that racism is the country’s “cultural inheritance.” He even quoted “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist,” a song from the Broadway musical Avenue Q. “The two young Black men on one side of the street look like so many others that officer has locked up. Two white men on the other side of the street, even in the same clothes, do not,” Comey said. “The officer does not make the same association about the two white guys — whether the officer is white or Black — and that drives behavior.”
Black History Month is just a small measure of a people’s continued resistance to racism and insistence to redeem not just theirs, but America’s collective histories. A partial list of upcoming cultural recognitions includes: March (National Women’s History Month),May (Asian Pacific American Heritage, Older Americans Month and Jewish American Heritage Month); June (Gay Lesbian Pride Month); September marks the start of National Hispanic-Latino Heritage Month (from Sept. 15-Oct.15) and the country’s indigenous are recognized in November during National American Indian Heritage Month.
The American narrative spans far and wide, and every story is an essential puzzle piece critical to the more complete telling of American history. Being the change you want to see doesn’t always mean taking it to the streets. In fact, diversity can be as baby-step simple as acquiring a culturally themed children’s book for your household, day care or church. Often, it is the quiet moments of reflection of a shared humanity that makes the greatest impact. Talking honestly about race means taking the time understand and embrace the value of difference.
Follow @BobbiBooker on Twitter.