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Black History Month is a singular, isolated observance drawn out through February to recognize African American contributions to America’s formation and image. For generations the great majority of those feats were ignored by the writers of history texts, but now the recognition comes through literature and several weeks of ceremonies, seminars, marches, parades and assorted TV programs.
Even so, the prevailing feel can be obligatory and condescending—as though the subject dare not be broached during the other 11 months of the year. “Oh, we can talk about THAT in February!”
So, here we are again, time to talk about THAT, but Black History Month 2021 has a different feel from its 95 predecessors, even a sense of urgency given the social upheaval of 2020. There is an increased interest in Black history as a way of understanding how and why we have arrived at this point of social reckoning, as a country, through an examination of the evolution of the African American community.
Historian Carter G. Woodson created Black History Week in 1926 as a natural extension of the cultural and intellectual Harlem Renaissance, with its cast of exceptional creative talents—Alain Locke, Langston Hughes and others—pushing for racial equality by extolling the realities of post-slavery African American life in the U.S. Woodson emphasized a need to recognize the achievements of African Americans.
Woodson chose February because of the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln (February 12) and Frederick Douglass (February 14), two men who were revered and celebrated in Black communities. By the 1970s the annual celebration had gained widespread popularity and was nudged to cover the entire month. Black History Month has been both hailed as an uplifting force and maligned as racially polarizing, a phenomenon that is currently more pronounced than the desegregation efforts of the 1960s.
Woodson never thought the study of Black history should be confined to one week. He established Black history education programs that would cover a full year of study, a “Black History Year.” Further, he welcomed the future when a designation of any kind regarding the study of Black history was no longer necessary.
So it was heartening last year when the Texas Education Agency OK’d high schools providing African American Studies as an elective course, a major positive step.
Welcome to the contemporary renaissance with more diverse voices and a new iteration of Black History Month for wider, rapt audiences acknowledging that Black history is American history.
Let’s talk about THAT … every day.
Michael Hurd is an author, historian and journalist who has written for publications such as USA Today, the Austin American-Statesman and The Houston Post. He is a noted expert on football at historically Black colleges, and as director of the Texas Institute for the Preservation of History and Culture at Prairie View A&M University, his research focuses on the 500-year history of African Americans in Texas. His most recent book is Thursday Night Lights, the Story of Black High School Football in Texas. A native Texan, he lives in The Woodlands.