We cannot learn from a past that we don’t understand. We need to know why and how individuals and events brought positive, lasting changes to our country. African American History Month serves as a portal connecting us to long-ago experiences that transcend simple explanations.
It is not enough to recall important names and make note of significant dates. We give this annual observance the entire month of February, but it covers multiple generations, heartbreaking diasporas and the rending of a nation.
Also known as Black History Month, February marks dark passages in our country’s past but it also celebrates a very special pride, unique victories and collective joy. We can thank Carter G. Woodson for his determination that the Black experience should not be defined by academics outside the Black community.
Woodson’s creation of Negro History Week in 1926 was done to ensure that all school children, regardless of race, would have an equal opportunity to learn about Black history. He strongly hoped his efforts would help bring about racial acceptance, understanding and equality.
His dreams made substantial progress in 1969 with a month-long celebration at Kent State University. In 1976, the observance finally received national standing with a proclamation by President Gerald Ford establishing February as Black History Month.
Kids today can learn about the Buffalo Soldiers and the Tuskegee Airmen. They can read Langston Hughes and Alice Walker, and they can listen to Jelly Roll Morton, Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin. The Civil Rights Movement holds its place in most school history books. Sadly, it is not taught in every classroom.
In keeping with our nation’s conflicted past, we make progress slowly. In keeping with the better angels of our nature, we continue to try our best to overcome our worst prejudices. February is the month to celebrate those angels by embracing African American history. We are all stewards of an extraordinary past that transcends simple explanations.