By Nicole PriceChief Diversity Officer
The short answer is yes. Many say that the country has entered a post-racial era: We have a black president –Barack Obama; we have had black CEOs – Kenneth Chenault and Ursula Burns; we have black university presidents – Ruth Simmons, Lee Pelton, Shirley Ann Jackson; we have had black secretaries of states – Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice. There have been and there currently is a black Supreme Court Justice –Thurgood Marshall in the past and Clarence Thomas today –, as well as black judges at every level of the judicial system – O. Rogeriee Thompson, Michael Bolden, Joyce London Alexander. We have black millionaires – Janice Bryant Howroyd, Quinton Primo III, Robert Johnson – and even one black billionaire – Oprah Winfrey. Therefore some think there’s no need to set aside a month to celebrate black history, that black people are equal and there’s certainly equity, access and opportunities for advancement, education and employment. But … are people treated equally, and is there equity?
Black History Month actually began as Negro History Week in 1926, when Dr. Carter G. Woodson sent out a press release announcing the celebration. Woodson had been exhibiting and celebrating the achievements of blacks before 1926. He believed that truth and reason would prevail over prejudice and set out to share the truth about blacks. Negro History Week and the formation of the Association for the Study of Negro Life & History (1915) were two avenues Woodson created to activate this belief. He consciously selected the week when Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass’ birthdays already were being celebrated. Woodson was inundated with requests for information; many state education departments supported the celebration; and celebrations were taking place throughout the country. Thus Negro History Week was deemed a huge success. By connecting Africa with Negro history, many expanded the celebration from a week to a month. In 1976, Negro History Week officially became Black History Month.
During President Gerald Ford’s Feb. 10, 1976, message on the observance of Black History Month, he said: “Seize the opportunity to honor the too-often-neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”
So the impetus of the celebration was to raise awareness, inform people, give people another perspective on the American story to aid in their understanding that people are individuals. Differences are due to a person's specific story – their family, their opportunities, their personality, their education, their socialization – not to a larger, human-created grouping of race.
Have we lived up to Carter G. Woodson’s belief that truth and reason could trump prejudice? The sad truth is: not yet.
As a nation we have made great strides towards being guided by equity and less so by prejudice, but we have not become a nation guided by truth and reason. It appears that the more advanced we have become, the more we let prejudice and stereotypes guide our thoughts and decisions. We have become a world intimately connected, due in large part to technological advances and innovations. These advances have made us a “right-now” society. What we see consistently and constantly and can access immediately drives our perceptions of people.
While all the above-mentioned black American accomplishments are real, these are not the images we see every day, or even every week, and thus they are seen as anomalies or as history – the past. Instead we have national news stories about the high incarceration rate of black males and increasing numbers for black women, images of blacks involved with violent crimes and rappers portraying a gansta, or thug, lifestyle. And while the stories have truth, they are only one part of the reality for blacks in America. But these images insinuate themselves into the stories that represent more than half of the reality for the more than 38 million black Americans in the United States.
Perhaps it is time to reevaluate the celebration of Black History Month. To adjust to the advances of our society and accomplish Woodson’s goals, we should celebrate – the black American experience – then and now. The celebration will include the history of black Americans and also the accomplishments of today. This celebration connects the past with present and provides continuity of past and present accomplishments, thus representing a total people – history and life. These images can reignite our movement toward being guided by truth and reason instead of prejudice. Yes, Black History Month is still necessary.