A reflection on the deeper significance of Black History Month
In the 12 months since we last celebrated Black History Month, we have witnessed the slaying of Houston native George Floyd, received the disturbing news about the tragic killing of 26-year-old Breonna Taylor, and watched in shock and horror as a New York woman weaponized her white privilege in an attempt to endanger and indict a Black man who dared to ask her to follow the stated rules of a public park. Even more disturbing, just days before we were to celebrate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we witnessed a mob of largely white men and women storm Our Nation’s Capital, brandishing confederate flags, nooses and other white supremacist paraphernalia as they chanted with pride and passion, “take our country back.”
And in spite of all our vain attempts to ignore or dismiss the ever-present realities facing us in those moments, what we could not overlook was that these episodes were taking place during one of the most severe pandemics in our lifetime — one that has again revealed the disproportionate impacts race plays in the lives of Black and brown people. In fact, of the 1,934 COVID-19 deaths in the city of Houston, 21% (406) were Black and 54% (1,050) were Hispanic as of February 23, 2021.
Reflecting on our past, inspiring our future
So, as we approach the dawn of this new season of Black History Month, wherein we will again highlight historic Black leaders such as Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells, and W.E.B. DuBois, I am curious whether we will also connect their work to the current work of Black leaders such as William Barber, Sherrilyn Ifil, and Ta-Nehisi Coates. As we once again rightly recognize and honor Houston’s own Black leaders and achievers such as Barbara Jordan, Mickey Leland and William Lawson, I am interested to see if we will be intentional this time in our efforts to make strategic investments in Houston’s new and emerging Black political, social and educational leaders. More importantly, as we again fill up our calendars with 28 days of feasting off of Black excellence, I can’t help but wonder if something in the telling of Black history in 2021 will be significant enough that it will cause us to stop for a brief moment and ask ourselves individually and collectively how we can more fully honor and celebrate the meaning and intentions of Black History Month as it was imagined by Dr. Carter G. Woodson, author of the Mis-Education of the Negro and founder of Black History Month.
Dr. Woodson is heralded as the “father of Black History Month,” however, many don’t know that when he founded the annual observance in 1926 — initially called Negro History Week — he was attempting to do more than just educate future generations of Black people about their ancestors’ remarkable contributions to world history, particularly in the United States. Indeed, what is often undervalued was his attempt to build and bridge Black institutions to larger social, political and economic institutions that would serve, protect and advance Black life in the United States and abroad. Although the study of Black historical representation across the African diaspora was crucial, Dr. Woodson also knew that a true understanding of the history of Black life would inevitably inspire a movement for Black freedom and liberation. In fact, Dr. Woodson is often quoted for saying that “those who have no record of what their forebears have accomplished lose the inspiration which comes from the teaching of biography and history.” This, in part, is why he helped found the Association for the Study of African American Life and History in 1915. It is also why he collaborated with organizations such as his beloved fraternity, Omega Psi Phi, and historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) such as Hampton Institute, now Hampton University. Dr. Woodson understood that Black institutional building was a necessary component for sustained liberation and freedom in a world wherein the value of Black life was not yet fully recognized.
Most significant to those Black institutions would be the rise of a Black Servant Leader Class, or what W.E.B. DuBois called the Talented Tenth. Dr. Woodson knew that within those movements Black figures would emerge from those institutions to signal not only to Black excellence, but also encourage Black allies. A recent example of that belief is manifested in the election of Kamala Harris, the first woman to be elected Vice President of the United States. Both a graduate of a historically Black university, Howard University, and a member of one of the Divine 9 organizations, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., Vice President Harris embodies Dr. Woodson’s reasoning for and support of Black history.
As such, Dr. Woodson was deeply interested in the way that Black history might inform the construction of institutions that would motivate both Black and white allies to develop activities for the advancement of Black political, social and cultural wellbeing. In other words, Dr. Woodson knew that Black history could be the foundation on which future generations could learn from the wealth of a Black ancestral past in order to build onramps that would allow Black people the opportunity to intelligently participate in the affairs of the world, both domestically and abroad. And while he wasn’t sure if it would free white people from the missteps of white supremacist logic, he did believe that Black history could challenge the validity of that logic.
A reason to be hopeful
Dr. Woodson knew that Black history could help to produce a well-informed, socially responsible citizenry that could work to build a better society than the one he was born into in 1875.
Therefore, in light of that mission and with the evidence for that cause standing before us, I am holding to the belief that in the next 365 days between Black history months, that maybe it will be possible to see Black history as more than just a review of past events interspersed with Black bodies. Maybe it will be possible to see it as a guide map to the unimaginable — our North Star toward a fuller democratic republic. Maybe this season, Black history might inspire us to invest in the work of Black institutional building and support for those Black leaders within them.
For this reason, I remain hopeful in this new season for Black history, in the same way that my great-grandmother’s grandmother, who was emancipated from slavery in Texas in June 1865, was hopeful. I hold on to that same hope as my grandmother, who survived through Jim Crow and obtained the legally protected right to vote in 1965.
To be clear, I am not hopeful because I believe that another Black body will never again become a headline as another senseless death. Nor am I hopeful because I believe Black inequality will be solved within the next 12 months. Neither am I hopeful because I believe that white supremacy will be abolished from the United States cultural psyche in the next year or even the next decade.
I am hopeful because I know in spite of all of those things, Black people will still be here! We will be here in spite of institutional barriers that will try to limit us or the diseases that will try and kill us. We will be here in spite of policies that will try to once again claim that we are not deserving of our full humanity. We will be here creating new spaces for our community in spite of the disinvestment in our schools, our neighborhoods and businesses. And in the process, we will add new narratives to the stories of Black history.
We will tell how we helped to elect the first Black woman to the office of Vice President. We will remind people how in Georgia we banded together to elect the first Black senator in the history of that state.
And because Black history is a corrective history, we will also tell the names of those who stood with us.
Marlon A. Smith, Ph.D.
Principal Consultant, Marlon A. Smith Enterprise
Founder, Black Greeks Speak Social Justice and Human Rights Council
Lecturer of African American Studies, University of Houston
Author of Reshaping Beloved Community: The Experiences of Black Male Felons and Their Impact on Black Radical Traditions and Black Lives Houston: Voices of Our Generations