February is Black History Month! Founded by Carter G. Woodson in 1926 and beginning as Black History Week, Black History Month seeks to recognize and honor the significant achievements of African Americans. The Association for the Study of African American Life and History leads this effort by promoting, preserving and researching the history and culture of African Americans as well as by setting the annual theme for Black History Month every year. The 2011 theme is “African Americans and the Civil War.” During Black History Month we celebrate the extraordinary African American leaders, scientists, educators, athletes, artists, entertainers, pioneers, social activists, public servants and other great individuals, who have achieved significant accomplishments and made major impacts on our communities, nation and the world. Black History Month has become particularly meaningful to the African American community because it has helped to enhance self-esteem and provide the community with a sense of cultural achievement, identity, and pride.
Despite its honorable intentions and notable significance, Black History Month does have its critics. As an American historian, specializing in African American history, I along with many others recognize its shortcomings. There are inherent weaknesses in acknowledging and celebrating a history of a great people during only one month out of the year, when it should be celebrated all year long. Why should we celebrate black history only one month and during the shortest month of the year? Secondly, black history has been compartmentalized instead of being incorporated into the wider narrative of American history. Due to the fact that African Americans have been present and contributors during every phase of the history and evolution of the United States, this history should be integrated into the fabric of American history and not just taught sporadically and through the lens of oppression, specifically slavery and segregation. Third, Black History Month tends to focus on the history of African Americans, when it should expand to include the entire pan-African experience. Black history began way before 1619 and stretches beyond the United States. Including ancient African civilizations and the Afro-Latino experience in the Caribbean and Central and South America will provide a global perspective of the legacy of black people. Lastly, Black History Month needs to acknowledge the living legends of the African American community instead of primarily focusing on the deceased. The Grio’s 100 History Makers in the Making is a step in this direction. Although we all realize the importance of recognizing our ancestors, we must also pay tribute to the giants who walk among us.
One of my most memorable experiences in my baptist church during my childhood in Brownwood, Texas, was celebrating Black History Month. I remember the faces and short biographies of African American historical figures, who were posted on the wall of our fellowship hall for all of our members to see and learn about our history. Now I have my own set of personal African American heroes and sheroes, who have achieved greatness in my own eyes, posted on my mental wall–local and national as well as the living and deceased. Among them are my parents Cecil and Loretta Houston, my paternal grandfather Bennie Will Houston, Sr., my college mentor Dr. Alma Renee Williams, my former Sunday School teacher Sis. Dora Flenoy and businesswoman Juanita Baranco. Others include Harriet Tubman, Malcom X, W.E.B. DuBois, Michael Jackson, Oprah Winfrey and Michelle and Barack Obama. These are just a few African Americans who I celebrate. Who are some of the African American heroes and sheroes that you celebrate this month and onward? I look forward to your comments.