Why a Black History Month?

~a column by Colleen O’Brien

It is February, Black History Month, sometimes now called African American Heritage Month. February was chosen because of two people whose birthdays happened to fall in February and who were instrumental in obtaining justice for African Americans: Frederick Douglass, 19th Century political activist, writer and vice-presidential candidate who worked for the abolition of the crime of slavery as well as unfair immigration restrictions; and Abraham Lincoln, 19th Century president who abolished slavery in the U.S.

What started out as Black History Week in 1926 became Black History Month by 1976. Its founder, Dr. Carter G. Woodson, felt that Blacks needed a place in the history books beyond the fact of slavery. Woodson did not necessarily want to emphasize the history of the imported African but the Negro in history: “Not a history of selected races or nations but the history of the world void of national bias, race hate and religious prejudice.”

We need this kind of void now more than ever. The world – in this volatile transitional period of climate change, population growth and biological extinction, plus digital globalization and the loss of manufacturing to robots, takeovers and closing up shop and heading south – is in turmoil.

What else could go wrong?

Oh, yes, nationalism raging, here and across Europe.

The more we know about the lives of everyone who lives in the country we live in, the better off we all are. A way to learn about our neighbor of different color, nationality, religion, political or sexual persuasion is through art, film, music and literature. If a neighbor or co-worker or the checker at the store is black and you’re unsure how to make friends, February offers a good start on learning where they came from and how they feel about things. Maybe we’ll all end up as friends.

Film:

  • “Loving,” a true story about a 1950s couple – the white man Richard Loving and the black woman Mildred Jeter – who marry against interracial marriage laws
  • “Moonlight,” a coming of age story set in Miami
  • “Queen of Katwe,” about a Ugandan girl who becomes a world-class chess player

Books:

  • Atlantic Magazine writer Ta-Nehesi Coates’s imparted wisdom to his son on how to be a Black man in America, Between the World and Me
  • A collection of personal narratives called What Does It Mean to Be White in America? Breaking the White Code of Silence, by Gabrielle David and Sean Frederick Forbes
  • Dance of the Jakaranda by Peter Kimani, about Kenyans building a railroad
  • Eye on the Struggle, about Ethel Payne, known as “first lady of the Black press,” by James McGrath Morris
  • The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, a story of Cora and Caesar who run away from the plantation to find the underground railway to freedom

Children’s Books, preschooler to fourth grade or so:

  • I Too Am American, based on the poem of that name by legendary Black poet Langston Hughes
  • Black History: Kids Edition, by Stephen Jones Sr., Black history is world history point of view
  • African History for Beginners by Herb Boyd, an illustrated travelogue from the Pharaohs to the present

Music:

  • Try YouTube for Riverfront Jazz Festival, Dallas, TX, or the New Orleans Jazz

You could spend a month on Black history; or just a read a book or see a movie, or a listen to jazz while you’re cooking supper one night; they’re all fun and interesting ways to lessen the tension that, for reasons which become clear through art, has thrived too long between the races in this country.

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