Like a lot of relationships, my feelings about Black History Month are complicated. On the one hand, I deeply appreciate the time to intentionally celebrate the brilliant contributions to American culture and history by people who look like me. But while absolutely worthy of celebration, the stories of African American contributions to our culture and history have become repetitive over the years. Harriet Tubman was so brave. Martin Luther King, Jr. was the best orator of all time. George Washington Carver sure was a whiz with peanuts! Year after year, I hear a dutiful recitation of the same familiar facts, so much so that I fear that the result is the mistaken impression that this is sum total of all the African American contributions to history.
Confining the history of an entire race of people to a 30-day period not only shortchanges the significance of those contributions, but it also allows the greater truth to be erased. When I ask my African American friends about this, I often hear some version of: “I’d rather have one month than no months.” But is that really the choice?
The importance of acknowledging Black accomplishments
A quick search with Professor Google reveals that Black History Month traces its origins back to 1926 when the aptly named Association for the Study of African American Life chose a week in February to coincide with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. In 1926, just a little over a half-century after the abolition of slavery, Black people were still strenuously making the argument for their humanity. The creation of that week was an important historical marker; its creator, Carter Woodson, was addressing Black people as much as a larger audience. There is nothing so motivating as to know that people who look like you achieved great things.
I know this from experience. My grandmother’s name before she married was Marian Robeson. She is the daughter of Benjamin Robeson, a minister and civil rights activist. Some will know his more famous brother Paul Robeson, the scholar, activist, and entertainer. Before she died, my grandmother shared with me copies of her father’s sermons. In them, my great-grandfather, a veteran, spoke eloquently about his love for a country that opposed his civil rights efforts. I first read his moving writings in law school, at a time when I began to let feelings of self-doubt creep into my consciousness. Perhaps I wasn’t quite as smart as I thought, wasn’t quite as capable. Reading his work pushed me to think of how the full story of the accomplishments of Black people is so buried that we think of those who we celebrate as exceptional. Here are 13 things about Black History Month you didn’t learn in school.
Telling everyone’s stories
And then, I discovered Ida Wells. Orphaned as a teenager, she went on to become a journalist, mother, and activist. Working alongside Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, she pushed them to include Black women in the cause for suffrage. The story of the women’s suffrage movement is absolutely incomplete without understanding the efforts of Ida Wells and her Black compatriots. Full stop. Reading her words made history so real for me, so painful but also so celebratory. Today as a documentary filmmaker, I think of Ida Wells’ fearless crusade for truth often and I’m motivated to continue to work to tell important stories. Here are 15 facts you probably didn’t know about Susan B. Anthony.
Ensuring that history lives on
But my most recent reminder of the power of story has been my work directing a film about Representative John Lewis for CNN Films. Watching hours of footage of a young Lewis strategizing and organizing, watching him deftly work with white and Black activists and politicians, I lived history through his eyes and experiences.
Walking through an airport with John Lewis as I have, I was constantly struck by the fact that the Congressman cannot go more than a few feet without someone stopping him to ask for a picture or to ask to shake his hand. He always stops, acknowledges, and thanks the person. It’s as if he seals each interaction with an implicit understanding that each person he connects with will become an ambassador, that when they tell the story of John Lewis, it will assure that history lives. Because of my work and my interests and experiences, I am acutely aware of the need for accurate information in our media and our history books. But don’t we need this information all year long? Use these 12 ways to celebrate Black History Month all year long.
Taking Black History Month to the next level
The Black History Week of 1926 became Black History Month in 1976. In those 50 years, remarkable battles were hard-fought and won, including landmark Supreme Court cases such as the decision in Brown v. Board of Education requiring the desegregation of public schools, the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the other panoply of civil rights laws guaranteeing by law basic rights of full citizenship to all people, regardless of race.
So, in 2020, some 40 years later, it’s time for Black history to enter the next phase. African Americans no longer need to argue that we deserve equal rights. With the establishment of a glorious museum on the National Mall, we do not need to make the case that our contributions to American culture, science, and progress are worthy of noting and celebrating. But racism and discrimination on the basis of race continue to be a stain on our country. And only by telling true stories do we have a chance to eradicate not only racist behavior but also racist thought. We have to face head-on the untrue idea that only white people contributed substantially to our cultural, scientific, and legal advances.
To dismantle this false narrative, the first place we should look is the story we tell about ourselves. I am confident that given the opportunity, a host of scholars would gladly take a pen to outdated history books—break them apart and add the rich context that includes the contributions of not only African Americans, but native and Asian people, women, and every other marginalized group. History is not a pie; my having more does not leave you less.
More of a very good thing
Where does this leave me? I don’t think we should abandon Black History Month. I’m a “plus…and” person. I think instead we should challenge our educators and ourselves to consistently search out and share stories and facts that expand our understanding of history to include all who contributed to it. Acknowledging that America is a multicultural society and that the accomplishments and contributions of people who are not white are real, substantial, and important is proof that the American ideals so many of us profess to value are real.
I asked my friend, the noted historian and scholar Henry Louis Gates, for his thoughts on this, to which he quickly replied: “Every day should be Black History Month!” Yes, sir. Every day.
Next, read one woman’s perspective on why Black History Month is more important than ever.
Dawn Porter is a documentary filmmaker. Her film John Lewis: Good Trouble premieres in theaters this spring.