February is Black History Month: Is a Month Enough?
February is Black History Month, which honors generations of African Americans who endured, overcame, and continue to overcome adversity to revolutionize all areas of life. Every few years, more countries join in recognizing the annual month-long celebration of activists, leaders, reformers, artists, scientists, actors, writers, and more, but many would be surprised to hear that only six countries officially recognize a month to honor Black history, and the celebrations vary across these six countries. The United States, Canada, and Germany observe Black History Month in February, whereas the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and Ireland recognize the month in October.
The fact that only six countries officially celebrate Black History Month—at different times of the year—truly surprised me, as I thought there would be more global recognition of the past and present contributions and achievements of Black populations throughout the world. Even more so, these findings raise larger questions about the manner in which these Western nations recognize this month, because shouldn’t we be honoring Black individuals every month of the year?
In light of Black History Month 2022, I’ve pondered why our society confines this celebration to only one month of the year. Especially for the United States, Canada, and Germany, why is February—the shortest month of the year—the chosen month to recognize the hardship Black populations have and continue to endure? Does limiting the observance to a month benefit or hurt the cause in the bigger picture of an entire year? With these questions, I’ve sought to explore how the limited nature of Black History Month influences our perception of the greater celebration at hand.
Let’s start with a little bit of history. In 1915, half a century after the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment, historian Carter G. Woodson and prominent minister Jesse E. Moorland created the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH), an organization designed to raise awareness about achievements of Black Americans throughout history.
In 1926, the organization sponsored a national Negro History week, which encouraged schools and clubs around the US to pioneer celebrations, performances, and lectures focused on Black history. Woodson and Moorland chose this event to be the second week of February to coincide with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln—the president who pioneered the emancipation of US slaves—and Frederick Douglass—a national leader of the abolitionist movement. By 1976, the week grew to the duration of a month, and the celebration was officially recognized by President Gerald Ford. Since then, every president has designated February as Black History Month.
The United Kingdom spearheaded Black History Month in October when they first recognized the celebration in 1987. Different from the US, the United Kingdom observes the unique experiences of Britain’s African-Caribbean population. The first annual celebration landed on the 150th anniversary of Caribbean emancipation and coincided with the UK’s African Jubilee Year, which was a year-long observance from 1987 to 1988 in which the government honored the cultural, political, and economic contributions of Africans in London and the UK.
For many, Black History Month is a time to honor the legacies of African American leaders and activists who had a tremendous influence on American history—including Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, Frederick Douglass, George Washington Carver, Ida B. Wells, and Sojourner Truth—as well as modern Black icons—such as Oprah Winfrey, Barack and Michelle Obama, Kamala Harris, Kobe Bryant, Chadwick Boseman, Amanda Gorman, and Serena and Venus Williams for example.
Even from this very short and insufficient list, it is vividly evident that the month of February does not allot the time remotely necessary to recognize the tremendous role each and every Black trailblazer has played, and continues to play, in shaping America’s history and culture.
Fundamentally, this complicated argument is best summarized by filmmaker and author Dawn Porter: “Confining the history of an entire race of people to a 28-day period not only diminishes the significance of their contributions but also allows the greater truth to be erased.” Porter finds that when she asks her African American friends about this issue, they respond with the rationale that it is better to have one month instead of no months. Instead of one month, why don’t we appreciate Black history every month?
The stories of Blacks in America should be shared and celebrated year-round, instead of being spotlighted simply for one month. Porter concludes that there is nothing more empowering than learning about the achievements of those who look like you, and this empowerment plays a crucial role in motivating the youth of our country. We must recognize that America is a multicultural society, and within our diversity lies stories and proof that our ideals and values as a nation are not upheld simply from Whites, but rather from individuals of all different races and ethnicities. History is evidence that our society was built on the sacrifices of minorities and populations who endured relentless oppression, discrimination, and hardship, and Black History Month is a reminder that this history is not dead nor forgotten.
Black History Month is a first step towards equality for Blacks and other races in America, but there is still much more work to be done. Just as Negro History Week evolved to Black History Month, we must now make the evolution from Black History Month to recognizing Black history every day.
Carter G. Woodson hoped that there would be a time when an annual celebration would no longer be necessary, according to Daryl Michael Scott, a history professor at Howard University. Woodson believed that “Black history was too important to America and the world to be crammed into a limited time frame,” and phasing out of this time frame has still yet to be realized.
Embrace Black history every day, as it is essential to our society today, and it reminds us that there is still a tremendous amount of change still to come.
If you are interested in learning more about Black History Month and Carter G. Woodson, I highly recommend that you read The History of Black History Month.