Black History Month begins today. If I am completely honest, I have never really cared for this observance. It feels like a participation trophy for an entire race that has been as much a part of the history of this country as almost any other. There is no United States of America without the Black men, women and children who are central to her being. Perhaps that was the impetus for the week that gave birth to the month. In 1926, Carter G. Woodson declared the second week of February to be “Negro History Week,” because it held the birthdays of both Frederick Douglas and Abraham Lincoln. Woodson and other scholars encouraged schools to include in their curriculum the achievements, contributions and sacrifices of Black people in the formation of the nation.
In 1969, Black leaders from Kent State University proposed turning the week into a month-long recognition, with the inaugural celebration taking place on that campus a year later in 1970. The words of President Gerald Ford capture the honorable intent, albeit concomitantly shameful need for the celebration, “[Americans should] seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.” The neglect of recognition preceded and precipitated the need for an intentional emphasis.
As with many ideas or efforts of noble origin, however, what was meant to open the door to a fuller and more inclusive recognition quickly turned into a misguided relegation. Centuries of information was summarily crammed into one month. And yet, it has only been through this month that many came to know such figures as Henry Blair, Sarah E. Goode, Garret Morgan, Elijah McCoy, Madam C.J. Walker and countless others. How many households across America uttered the phrase, “I didn’t know that” about the brilliance and ingenuity of Black explorers, inventors, scholars and poets because of articles written during this month?
Almost a century after Woodson’s week, we have yet to see the full integration of the contributions of African Americans included in the history of America. Black history is American history. There is no legitimate, complete or honest retelling of this nation’s past without the inclusion of all of her progeny. Worse still, there is an effort presently underway to rewrite or remove much of that history. Books are being banned in schools. In some places the transatlantic slave trade is being denied or grotesquely distorted as humane.
Attempting to erase the truth is dangerous. It always has been, and it always will be.
As disciples of Jesus Christ, we should always be proclaiming, heralding and seeking the truth – the whole truth. The whole exacting, complicated, painful and beautiful truth. Refusing to tell the truth of the unadulterated history of this country does not erase nor change that history. Quite to the contrary, refusing to squarely face our history could lead us to repeat some of its darkest moments. The current assault on voting rights, renewed efforts at gerrymandering, and the rise in supremacist groups portends a regression of many gains achieved during the civil rights era.
Today begins another Black History Month. Rather than recoil at or ignore its arrival, we are invited to recognize, revel in and rejoice at the breadth and depth of the African American presence, participation in, and contributions to our great nation and beyond. Whether we engage a new literary work such as The Warmth of Other Suns or Caste, by Isabel Wilkerson; listen to insightful podcasts like, Code Switch or Historically Black; watch movies such as A Raisin In the Sun, Selma or Just Mercy, may we immerse ourselves in the rich history and painful past that is the Black journey in America. You may be interested in exploring: a collection of feature length and shorter videos and podcasts; or reading something from this curated reading list; or sharing some of these images and quotes on social media. The important thing is to engage so that we can begin today to more fully understand the whole truth of this country and build a better, more just and inclusive tomorrow.
Blessings and Peace,
Bishop LaTrelle Easterling
Peninsula-Delaware and Baltimore-Washington Conferences
The United Methodist Church