It’s day one of Black History Month, a month-long celebration of the contributions of African Americans and a time to reflect on our progress toward racial equity. In partnership with the National Black Nurses Association (NBNA), we’ll be featuring a range of stories related to black history on Scrubs Mag throughout the month of February and beyond to keep the conversation going.
This year’s Black History Month feels even more critical than usual for several reasons, a few of which include:
Over the past year, COVID-19 has had a disproportionate effect on brown and black Americans.
The killing of George Floyd in June of 2020 rekindled a worldwide civil rights movement.
Just a few weeks ago, we saw domestic extremists parading through the U.S. Capitol building holding confederate flags and other white supremacist imagery.
The past year has shown us that we have a lot of work to do when it comes to achieving equity and overcoming the systemic racism that still haunts us today.
The Story of Black History Month
This tradition started with Carter G. Woodson, known as the “Father of Black History.” Woodson, whose parents were slaves, became a respected author, historian, and the second African American to get a PhD from Harvard University.
In the early 1920s, he recognized that the U.S. offered very little information about the accomplishments of African Americans, the history of slavery, and the hardships black people have had to overcome. To right these wrongs, he went on to create the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, now called the Association for the Study of African American Life and History.
In 1926, Woodson proposed the idea of having a “Negro History Week,” which would give students a chance to demonstrate all they have learned about black history the previous year. He wanted students to learn about these issues year-round.
Woodson chose the month of February to coincide with the birthdays of Frederick Douglass, the legendary abolitionist, author, and public speaker, born on February 14th, and President Lincoln, who helped abolish slavery during the Civil War, born February 12th.
While not a federal holiday, February 1st is also known as National Freedom Day to commemorate the passing of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery.
President Harry S. Truman eventually recognized National Freedom Day in 1949 and urged residents to contemplate its significance.
It wasn’t until 1976 during the height of the Civil Rights Era that President Ford extended Negro History Week into a full month, creating what would become known as Black History Month.
For Woodson, it was more about educating younger African Americans about their history. He wanted them to take pride in their roots and make their ancestors proud.
“Those who have no record of what their forebearers have accomplished lose the inspiration which comes from the teaching of biography and history,” he said at the time.
Understanding Black History Month
Celebrating BHM is about coming to terms with the past, not brushing it aside. LaGarrett J. King, an associate professor of social studies education at the University of Missouri and founding director of the CARTER Center for K-12 Black History Education, says many companies, brands, and organizations will offer black-themed prizes, quizzes, discounts, and giveaways. She says some educators are able to “disrupt the official narrative,” but many continue to “teach black history from a white-centered perspective.”
This often means bringing to light images and stories of the past, including slavery, the Civil Rights movement, and the Jim Crow era. She says it’s a mistake to only focus on a handful of figures who are “palatable to white audiences,” while ignoring those who are often forgotten by history.
Black History Month is also about healing and rectifying the wrongs of the past, but you can’t heal from wounds you don’t know are there. Dionne Grayman, who trains schools to have difficult conversations about race, says the country can’t move past this chapter of history until there is “truth, then accountability and then maybe reconciliation.”
Daniel Hirschman, an assistant professor of sociology at Brown University in Rhode Island, says overlooking the ugliest parts of our history can fuel racial divides in the present. He says people are already trying to move on from the assault on the U.S. Capitol on January 6th.
“We have to sort of assume that’s going to happen and try to work to make sure it doesn’t,” he said.
Celebrating BHM Today
The theme of this year’s celebration is “The Black Family: Representation, Identity, and Diversity,” chosen by the Association for the Study of African American Life and History.
We will continue to explore these issues over the next few weeks and beyond.
There are dozens of organizations devoted to celebrating this special time of the year. Visit blackpast.com, the ASALH (Association for the Study of African American Life and History), and the National Museum of African American History and Culture at the Smithsonian to see how you can experience the celebration at home.
You can also visit the NAACP website to see how your business or company can best honor Black History Month.
Start a conversation during BHM to help change the U.S. for the better.