February is Black History Month
A full appreciation of the celebration of Black History Month requires a review and a reassessment of the social and academic climate that prevailed in the Western world, and especially in North America before 1926 when Black History Month was established.
It is important to recall that between 1619 and 1926, African Americans and other peoples of African descent were classified as a race that had not made any contribution to human civilization. Within the public and private sector, African Americans and other peoples of African descent were continually dehumanized and relegated to the position of non-citizens and often defined as fractions of humans. It is estimated that between 1890 and 1925, an African American was lynched every two and a half days.
The academic and intellectual community was no different from the bulk of mainstream America. Peoples of African descent were visibly absent in any scholarship or intellectual discourse that dealt with human civilization. African Americans were so dehumanized and their history so distorted in academia that "slavery, peonage, segretation and lynching" were considered justifiable conditions. In fact, Professor John Burgess, the founder of Columbia University graduate school of Political Science and an important figure in American scholarship defined the African race as "a race of men which has never created any civilization of any kind..."
It was this kind of climate that inspired the talented African American scholar, Dr. Carter Godwin Woodson to lead the struggle for the establishment of what was then referred to as "Negro History Week". With Woodson's direction and contributions from other African American and white scholars, the "Negro History Week" was launched on a serious platform in 1926 to neutralize the apparent ignorance of Black History.
Meetings, exhibitions and lectures were organized to climax the scientific study of the African experience throughout the year in order to give a more objective and scholarly balance in American and World history. Today, this national and international observance has been expanded to encompass the entire month of February. The expansion, of course, has increased the number of days for celebration, but its strength and importance lie in the new meaning that has emerged.
It is necessary to use the occasion to examine the collective ingenuity, creativity, cultural and political experience of the masses of Africans and peoples of African descent. In North America, a variety of programs - including lectures, exhibitions, banquets and a host of cultural activities are presented throughout the month of February to commemorate the occasion.
The intention of the founders was not and is still not to initiate a week's or a month's study of the universal African experience. Instead, the observance portrays the climax of a scientific study of the African experience throughout the year. The month of February is significant and recognized in African American history for the birthdays of great African American pioneers and institutions. These include the birthdays of Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois, Langston Hughes, Eubie Blake, NAACP and the first Pan African Congress. Historians may also recall that the first African American Senator, Hiram Revels took the oath of office in February 1870.
Civil rights laws and celebrations such as Black History Month have exposed the legal consequences of overt discriminatory practices and racial harassment. The struggles for, and achievement of independence by African countries in the 20th century have shown the strength, the humanity, the ingenuity and the contributions of the African to the human civilization. However, these revelations have not neutralized the prevalence of prejudicial attitudes which generate discriminatory acts both on a national and in the international arena. Behaviour may be controlled by laws, national and international, but attitudes can only change through education and the elimination of ignorance.
Black History Month should be the reaffirmation of struggle and determination to change attitudes and heighten the understanding of the entire American experience.