By Naomi Johnson, Senior Associate
February is dedicated to celebrating, honoring and learning about Black history. During Black History Month, school-aged children will be introduced to famous Black leaders, inventors and artists. Many companies will highlight key Black figures in campaigns across social media channels. Although these acknowledgments are important, the attempt to fit centuries of history into the shortest month of the year is challenging, and some may ask–is 28 days really enough?
As a child, I remember walking into the classroom on the first day of Black History Month, instantly feeling joy when greeted by photos of famous Black figures with skin like mine. Photos of Rosa Parks graced the classroom walls, beautifully written poems by Maya Angelou were placed on my desk, and a DVD of “Our Friend, Martin” was ready to play on the TV. But on March 1st, the photos, poems, and movies went into storage until the following year. The importance of Black History Month is undeniable, but a child should always see Black leaders on their classroom walls; companies should continue to educate their staff; and communities should acknowledge that Black history is American history.
In 1926, Carter G. Woodson, known as the “Father of Black History” launched “Negro History Week” to document, educate and celebrate the history and accomplishments of Black people. By the late 1960’s, Negro History Week evolved into the internationally celebrated Black History Month. Woodson’s goal was never to provide a temporary solution to acknowledging Black history, but instead, to fully incorporate Black history into American history. We can fulfil Woodson’s vision by incorporating Black history into the school systems’ yearly curriculum and continuing to encourage important conversations in the workplace.
Black History in the School System
During Black History Month, children learn about famous civil rights leaders and the Atlantic Slave Trade as significant components of American history. These stories show the strength and resilience of historical Black figures as they faced generations of adversity. These are important stories to teach our children, but what about the others? What about Edmonia Lewis, the first African American and Native American sculptor to achieve national and international recognition? Or Ursula Burns, the first black women to become a CEO of a Fortune 500 company? There are many significant Black leaders whose achievements haven’t found a permanent place in our limited curriculum; therefore, many people aren’t aware of their achievements.
Black history is an integral part of American history, yet it is often ostracized. What is this teaching young Black children about their identities? Black children need to feel seen in the classroom, and all children and educators need to see and value Black history as part of American history.
Black History in the Workplace
Employers should foster an environment where Black history is acknowledged beyond Black History Month. In my experience, I’ve witnessed companies put effort into celebrating Black History Month, but once it’s over, those critical conversations cease. Conversations regarding race can be uncomfortable for everyone, but the only way to overcome this discomfort is by continuing critical discussions throughout the year. By having meaningful conversations, we can begin to intentionally create a culturally aware and accepting society. It’s important to highlight Black employees on social media, host workshops, and plan special events during the month of February—but the acknowledgements shouldn’t stop there. To create a society where Black History Month isn’t a need but, instead, an additional time to celebrate, we must begin recognizing Black history as an integral part of society and the overall history of America.
Black History is History
It’s impossible to truly celebrate the many contributions and achievements of Black people throughout history in 28 days. By separating Black history from American history in the school system, Black children can feel inferior, while their classmates are only given a narrow lens, leaving them uninformed about the breadth of contributions of Black people in America. By only acknowledging the impact of Black history and culture in February, employers create and environment where employees feel unsupported. Black History Month was created with the intent that one day the history and achievements of Black people would be recognized throughout the year. As Maya Angelou once said, “Won’t it be wonderful when Black history and Native American history and Jewish history and all of U.S. history is taught from one book? Just U.S. history.” It’s time for us to come together and bring these words to life—one step at a time.