By U.S. Rep. Kweisi Mfume
In 1926, Harvard-trained historian Carter G. Woodson launched “Negro History Week.” Celebrated during the second week of February, it was designed to promote the study of African American contributions to the United States.
Fifty years later, in 1976, President Gerald Ford helped establish what we now know as Black History Month in America. In his statement to the nation, President Ford urged Americans to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”
Now, forty-five years later, it’s time we rethink the way we recognize the contributions of Black Americans and infuse African American history into our curriculum and conversations year-round.
From the indispensable traffic light to the achievements of the Tuskegee Airmen to the construction of the White House, Black people have been the driving force behind some of the most pioneering moments and most quintessential symbols of our modern society.
While there are benefits to devoting time to better understand Black culture, relegating Black history to a month has its negative consequences.
The first is that it allows schools and other educational institutions to essentially opt-out of integrating Black history into mainstream education. Rather than incorporating courses about the African American experience into year-long curricula, educators can limit their teachings on Black Americans to an abbreviated one-month period.
The stories and voices of African Americans should be recognized in school every day, as the absence of Black history in required readings does everyone a disservice.
For Black students, the lack of representation impedes their ability to see themselves as a fully integrated part of the American story. For all other students, the misrepresentation and miseducation could create the erroneous belief that the experiences and contributions of African Americans are limited only to slavery and civil rights.
A second reason to liberate our recognition of Black history is to counter the negative portrayals of African American culture that are highlighted in everyday life. Too often, too many other media outlets present a distorted picture of the Black American experience. The news inundates us with stories of criminality, incarceration, and poverty, sprinkled with images of exceptional athletes and celebrities along the way. These unbalanced portrayals only further subject Black Americans to prejudice and unfair stereotypes.
There is no single, one-dimensional manifestation of what it means to be a Black American. To have a more robust, comprehensive picture of the Black experience, we must be intentional in regularly sharing stories about Black experts, Black professionals, and other Black Americans who have achieved success in their business and family lives. Neglecting to do so perpetuates the myth of Black exceptionalism that says Black Americans who are “articulate,” hard-working, and successful are somehow rarities and exceptions in American society.
Finally, one of the best arguments for liberating our teachings of Black History is to help all Americans get a better understanding of how we got to where we are today. The systemic racism and racial inequities we see today are rooted in the ugly legacies, including the legacies of slavery, Jim Crow, and government-sanctioned segregation. A critical part of fully understanding our present and shared future is fully understanding our shared history.
A 28-day celebration (29 during leap years) is simply not enough time to visit and examine the Black experience, including uncomfortable and painful periods in American history. While some prefer to skirt through or skip over it, we cannot run from our history, we must learn from it.
From math to music, science to politics, we have been at the helm of some of this Nation’s greatest advancements and innovations. When we relegate the telling of our History to only a month, we give others a license to neglect us the other 11 months of the year. If we truly believe Black history is American history, we must treat it as such. We must recommit ourselves to ensuring that the stories of Black people and their contributions to our country are shared year-round, in education, in the media, and in their entirety.
Rep. Kweisi Mfume represents the seventh (7th) Congressional District of Maryland.
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