In a week or so, Black History Month 2011 will be here, as will familiar complaints and criticism from those insecure about their own cultural identities and afraid of those who are not â€œlike them.” Pick up any newspaper during Black History Month and youâ€™ll find letters to the editor asking why thereâ€™s a Black History Month but no White History Month, why â€œthose peopleâ€ have to be called African-Americans and not simply Americans, and why do black people have to have their own institutions and celebrations. This weekâ€™s thoughts deal with those familiar questions – feel free to pass them on.
Why is there a Black History Month but no White History Month? The roots of Black History Month go back to 1915, when educator, scholar and historian Dr. Carter G. Woodson established the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. Dr. Woodson did so out of concern that the history books of his day contained little if any information about the contributions of Americans of African descent. That continuing concern led Dr. Woodson to establish Negro History Week on the second week of February in 1926. He chose February because Abraham Lincoln, who signed the Emancipation Proclamation and Frederick Douglass, who advocated for the abolition of slavery were February born. Negro History Week became Black History Month in the 1976, the fiftieth anniversary of Negro History Week and the bicentennial year of the United States of America.
While black history cannot be confined to or covered in a single week or month – itâ€™s also American history – the month serves as a reminder of the diversity of those who wove the fabric of America and serves as a starting point for year long inclusion and discussion. I invite those who ask why thereâ€™s no White History Month to simply and honestly consider what passes for â€œhistoryâ€ in the writings and minds of many – youâ€™ll find that in America, every month is still White History Month.
Why do Americans of visible African descent choose to be called African-Americans? Probably because we chose in the 1960’s to define themselves rather than being defined by others. The majority society once labeled Americans of African descent as â€œcoloredâ€ or â€œNegro,â€ and we accepted those labels and suppressed or rejected our cultural heritage. When I was a child, calling someone black might lead to a fight! The 1970’s brought a new sense of self pride and self awareness, as expressed in the affirmation that â€œblack is beautiful.â€ We rejected labels assigned to us by others and chose our own labels as black or African-American. That represents not a rejection of America, but an affirmation that Americans come in all colors and that Americans of African descent also helped to make America what it is today.
Why do black people have to have their own institutions? Primarily because we once had no choice but to create our own institutions. The African Methodist Episcopal Church was born in 1787 when Christians of African descent refused to acquiesce to racial prejudice in the Methodist Episcopal church and established their own institution to serve the Lord Jesus without impediment. The National Medical Association and National Bar Association came into being because black doctors and lawyers were once barred from joining the American Medical Association and American Bar Association. Times may have changed and organizations and institutions may be more open and inclusive, but that doesnâ€™t justify organizations and institutions with rich histories and positive purposes going out of business. Many of them, like the AME Church, are simply becoming more diverse and still have roles to play in an America where African-American youth need safe havens and positive role models.
Why do black people have to have their own celebrations? For the same reason that Irish-Americans celebrate Saint Patrick Day and Scottish-Americans put on kilts and eat haggis (nowhere near as tasty as chitlins) to celebrate Robert Burnsâ€™ birthday. Cultural celebrations are a part of the American fabric, and citizens of all colors and cultures join in those celebrations. Only those who operate in fear and refuse to broaden their horizons canâ€™t grasp that reality.
Morris Brown AME Church will have a broad range of activities for Black History Month – especially since our founder, Richard Allen, was also born in February. All of those activities, as is the case for membership at Morris Brown, will be open to the entire community and attendance is encouraged. Weâ€™ll reflect together on Godâ€™s blessings and focus not just on Black History, but on vital and vibrant aspects of Americaâ€™s history.