Black History Matters

Remembering black history

While many are focused on what they’re going to buy their significant other for Valentine’s Day this February, this article is about a month-long holiday that need not be ignored. 


February is Black History Month, and while we know about George Washington Carver’s use of peanuts and well known figures like Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, a lot of people forget about a large reason why Black History Month exists, and the people behind the scenes that we don’t know the names of.


The intention behind Black History Month, according to the originator of Negro History Week and black historian, Carter G. Woodson was to appreciate a people’s history and as a result, lead to equality. Woodson said, “If a race has no history, if it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world.” Woodson wanted to not only prove that black Americans played an important role in American society and therefore should be equal, but to make black life and history visible to the rest of the nation.


Time Magazine’s Theodore R. Johnson elaborates on his words, “…No amount of legislation can grant you equality if a nation doesn’t value you.” Johnson goes on to explain that despite all the representation in politics and legislation, not much is changing. “We have Brown vs. Board, and yet the racial segregation of public schools remains the norm. We have the Fair Housing Act, and racial segregation in housing has barely changed in nearly four decades. We have the 15th Amendment and a Supreme Court-weakened Voting Rights Act, and yet state laws still implement measures that disproportionately affect black voters.”


On top of this, black people’s health tends to be generally worse than white people, black Americans are incarcerated five times the rate of white Americans, and black unemployment is still twice that of white americans. 


Black History Month is here to serve as a reminder of Sojourner Truth’s speech “Ain’t I a woman?” and the abolitionist’s slogan “Am I not a man and a brother?” 


Laws have been put into place, and yet we still see that racism against black people is alive and well. 


Lonnie Bunch is the founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. She writes, “I would suggest, however, that one learns even more by examining what a nation chooses to forget.” Bunch believes that we should not only focus on the successes, because that isn’t realistic. To make change happen requires failure and defeat. To look at Black History Month as only success ignores all of those who died for either taking a stand for their rights, or by simply existing. 


Being taught this history is what empowers and inspires. Black history, black success, and even the tragedies, are part of what shape the future. George Santayana famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”


Not only do we tend to ignore the tragedies during Black History Month, but we also forget the stories of those who were ignored by history because they didn’t fit the image we wanted to show the rest of the nation.


An example is that before Rosa Parks, there was Claudette Colvin. Claudette was 15 when she was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white bus passenger. Colvin’s story was not used as a test case to oppose segregation because her conviction for violating segregation laws was overturned, Colvin’s age, and Colvin became pregnant a few months after her arrest.


Colvin believes that she was also cast out from the spotlight because she was working class and darker skinned. Colvin told The Guardian in 2000, “It would have been different if I hadn’t been pregnant, but if I had lived in a different place or been light-skinned, it would have made a difference, too. They would have come and seen my parents and found me someone to marry.”


Whenever people asked Colvin why she didn’t give up her seat, she said, “It felt as though Harriet Tubman’s hands were pushing me down on one shoulder and Sojourner Truth’s hands were pushing me down on the other shoulder. I felt inspired by these women because my teacher taught us about them in so much detail.”


Colvin decided years later that she too had a voice and part in the end of segregation. Colvin wanted to, “Let the people know Rosa Parks was the right person for the boycott. But also let them know that the attorneys took four other women to the Supreme Court to challenge the law that led to the end of segregation.”


Before this article closes, space is left for the martyrs of the civil rights movement, because progress and success is not without tragedy.


This February we remember Emmett Till, 14, Addie Mae Collins, 14, Carol Denise McNair, 11, Cynthia Wesley, 14, Carole Robertson, 14, Virgil Lamar Ware, 13, Jimmie Lee Jackson, 26, and many; too many more names that would be impossible to put in one article.


Black History Month is to remind America that black citizens have shaped our country, died for our country, and fought for our country. Carter G. Woodson didn’t want our history to be forgotten, because our history is part of what makes us human. Martin Luther King Jr. himself said, “It may be true that law cannot change the heart, but it can restrain the heartless. It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me…”