With Black History Month (BHM) rapidly approaching, I want to take this opportunity to address: 1.) The purpose and background of BHM (2. The limited ways in which we typically use this month 3.) How to make BHM more relevant and empowering.
What we now refer to as Black History Month began as “Negro History Week.” Dr. Carter G. Woodson, a Harvard University graduate and history professor, began this commemoration in 1926. He was frustrated by the absence of scholarship and discussion about Black people’s contributions to America and the world. He hoped that NHW would fill this void.
A common belief among Black people is that whites created Black History Month in February because it is the “shortest and coldest month of the year.” Actually, Woodson designated the second week of February to honor the birthdays of President Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, two people he believed were great emancipators of Black people. The first recorded celebration of Black History Month was in February of 1970 by Black students at Kent State University. By 1976, America’s Bicentennial, the government officially “recognized” this change from Negro History Week to Black History Month, however Black people began this tradition before the government’s validation or permission.
How We Typically Use BHM
Typically, at grade schools, in the community, and on college campuses, BHM becomes a time when we focus on the contributions of Black people, bring people up to speak concerning issues of relevance to Black people, and sponsor plays or movies with “Black” themes, in addition to essay contests, parties, fashion shows, poetry events and the like. Cable and network television stations join in by unveiling their biographies of great Black figures. The internet chronicles important daily moments in Black history. Yet we can accomplish so much more during this month. This is a time to among other things: share stories not commonly known about Black people, movements, or experiences; explore contemporary problems we face and come up with proposals of resolution; research our family history; teach about continental African culture/history/politics in addition to that of the Diaspora; and use historical inquiry to learn lessons we can implement today. This last point is important since we regularly discuss important Black individuals but fail to glean their meaning for us now and going forward. For young people in particular, the following lessons constitute one example of how we can make Black History Month more relevant. As you read each lesson, think about a specific person or incident from our historical or contemporary context that embodies it.
Sample Lessons Procured From the Black Experience
- Our worth and value is not determined by our clothing, education level, hair style, height, or income but by how useful we are to other people. The more we serve, the more valuable we are.
- Our ancestors suffered more hardships, deprivation, and brutality than we can imagine. Despite it all, they pushed through. When we are tempted to complain, whine or feel hopeless, we should think about this fact.
- We must actively pursue, fight for and work toward freedom, empowerment or success. These good things do not “come to those who wait.”
- Like the Pyramids or Sphinx of Egypt, monumental achievement is not simply judged by size or cost, but by how long it lasts
- We cannot be truly great or accomplished until we confront and conquer our fears
- As evidenced by Malcolm X, we can become great despite a negative or difficult past
- Genius and God-given ability without self-discipline, practice and application are short-lived.
- We must learn from others but be willing to set our own course and follow our own compass
- People and incidents often threaten to enrage and divert us. We must develop the ability to remain poised and focused in the midst of chaos and pressure
- We cannot rely on others for our empowerment and protection. The institutions businesses, organizations and opportunities we need must be created for us, by us
- All worthy goals require some degree of sacrifice and prioritizing
- Study and learning are indispensable tools for progress
- No person, idea, practice or group is above criticism
- There is no one way to serve; there is room for everyone in “The Struggle”
Agyei Tyehimba is a former NYC public schoolteacher, co-founder of KAPPA Middle School 215 in the Bronx, NY, and co-author of the Essence Bestselling book, Game Over: The Rise and Transformation of a Harlem Hustler, published in 2007 by Simon & Schuster. Agyei has appeared on C-Span, NY1 News, and most recently on the A&E documentary, “The Mayor of Harlem: Alberto ‘Alpo’ Martinez.” Mr. Tyehimba is a professional consultant and public speaker providing political advice and direction for Black college student organizations, community activist groups, and nonprofit organizations. If you are interested in bringing Agyei to speak or provide consultation for your organization, please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.