Study Black history first, then celebrate it.

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

It’s that time again—the scramble to throw together Black history month events for February. Branded as Black History Month celebrations, these recurring events are too often more about celebrating than studying Black History. You know, the usual multi-cultural plays, pot luck dinners, fashion shows, dance contests, and Martin Luther King, Jr. speech contests with children reciting Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream Speech.”

More unsettling is when schools pretend to teach Black History with wall decorations, dress up as your favorite Black history figure, and meaningless Black celebrity trivia quizzes. Worse, some schools even do slavery re-enactments and force Black students to portray slaves like Patricia Cummings, a white teacher in Mississippi who forced Black students to lie on the floor while she stood on their backs as part of an ugly lesson on slavery. (Yes, they fired Cummings. No, Black History did not begin with slavery.)

Many Black history events are just an excuse to get together, eat, drink, be seen, or tone down any racial bias perceptions in the community. There are more substantive ways to restore the intentional missing pieces of Black culture.

“History is not everything, but it is a starting point. History is a clock that people use to tell their political and cultural time of day. It is a compass they use to find themselves on the map of human geography. It tells them where they are, but more importantly, what they must be.”

John Henrik Clarke

The coronavirus has moved most of our community and ticketed events into the virtual space. A virtual Black History Month is the perfect chance to provide more constructive ways to learn about America’s history books’ missing pages. Black History is not so hidden if you go looking for it.

When we focus more on the jubilee and celebration, we miss out on the jewels of learning the Black perspective. Through study, Black people can solve problems and teach their children who they can become before entering school. There is no excuse for not having access to these resources that are in plain sight. The pandemic has turned most people into shut-ins. Use this time to read more, access local library resources, binge watch documentaries, join online Black history study groups, or start one.

Carter G. Woodson, born in 1875, the son of formerly enslaved parents, is known as the father of Negro History Week, which later became Black History Month. Woodson dedicated his life to preserving the richness and accuracy of Black History and culture. Woodson identified that Blacks were intentionally kept ignorant and miseducated. Woodson’s book, “The Miseducation of the Negro,” is still relevant today. Woodson identified the erasure of Black History in American and world history, and he committed himself to expose the dangers of this travesty.

Black comedians have often joked that Black History Month falls in February because it’s the shortest month of the year; Woodson proposed February as the month to study Black History because February 12th was Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. February 14th was the accepted birthday of Frederick Douglass.

Opponents of Black History Month will question whether Black History Month is still relevant. Does it make a difference? Of Course, it does. Woodson envisioned the study of Black History as a means of transformation. Studying Black History can correct some of the confusion and anti-blackness caused by Mis-education. Sure, school systems must teach the truth, and we should push for that. We need to broaden local, state, and national education reform efforts to include the Black view. But, we have the power and the ability to make our homes, clubs, and organizations, Black history learning centers. We don’t need permission.

Given the harsh reality of America’s racial climate, many will remember the year 2020 as the year of the Black Death. The unabashed killing of unarmed Black people is a gruesome pandemic worse than the coronavirus with the killing of Floyd, Taylor, Arbery, and too many others. Dr. Susan Moore, a Black physician, died in an Indiana hospital battling COVID-19 after complaining of racist medical care days before her death. There is an urgency now to know Black History. In the words of Dr. King, “We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now...”

We need Black History every day. Only after we know our critical Black History will we then have cause to celebrate.

Dr. Greg Carr, is an Associate Professor of Africana Studies and Chair of the Department of Afro-American Studies at Howard University and Adjunct Faculty at the Howard School of Law.

Get your free e-book The Mis-education of the Negro, Carter G. Woodson

Black History Resources

Association for the Study of African American Life and History The mission of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH®) is to promote, research, preserve, interpret and disseminate information about Black life, history and culture to the global community.

The 1619 Project is an ongoing initiative from The New York Times Magazine that began in August 2019, the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery. It aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and black Americans’ contributions at the very center of our national narrative. 

The African American Cultural Heritage Collection The AACHC features an extensive collection of African Americans’ rich history in America. The collection features multiple traveling exhibits of this great history to further our mission of informing audiences of the rich, un-credited, and under-acknowledged history of African Americans to world history and culture.

Share this: