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Black History Toolkit: Celebrating Black History

About Black History Month

African diaspora: The historic movement of Africans and their descendants throughout the world, through both the international slave trade and voluntary emigration.

Civil rights: Category of personal rights referring to an individual’s right to take part in the civic and political processes of their state or country.

Discrimination: Making a distinction in favor of or against an individual because of the class, race, creed, or other group to which the person belongs.

Heritage: Beliefs, customs, traditions, and history passed from one generation to the next within a certain cultural, social, or historical group.

Observance: A customary practice, rite, or ceremony.

Racism: Belief that inherent differences between the races of humans determine the potential for cultural or personal achievement and ability; behavioral patterns marked by hatred, intolerance, or discrimination against a race or races.

Issitt, M. (2021). Black History Month: Overview. Salem Press Encyclopedia.

Black History Month is an annual observance period set aside to honor the lives and history of African descendants now living in other parts of the world. The month is honored with historical, cultural, and educational presentations in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. In the United States, Black History Month is observed during the month of February. It is marked by various public and private programs designed to raise awareness about the contributions of Black American citizens in the United States as well as the difficulties and challenges faced by Africans and their descendants in the African diaspora.

Some people believe that Black History Month provides an important and necessary framework for exploring the importance of Black American history and the contributions of Black Americans to modern society. Some further argue that designating a specific month to focus on Black American history is a useful tool for those preparing educational curricula on the subject and that the month also provides encouragement for scholars and educators to investigate the lives of lesser-known Black American historical figures. Critics of Black History Month and other designated history months, such as Women’s History Month, argue that these observational months serve to maintain divisions between different subsets of society and may marginalize individuals of races that have not received recognition in the form of a designated day or month. Another criticism is that the designation of a single month might perpetuate the idea that Black American history can be addressed in an abbreviated fashion, while the actual contributions of Black Americans should be appreciated in every aspect of the nation’s history.

Issitt, M. (2021). Black History Month: Overview. Salem Press Encyclopedia.

Prominent Black American activist Carter Godwin Woodson (1875–1950), a historiographer by training, was the first to suggest setting aside an annual period to recognize the experiences of Black Americans. Woodson received a PhD in history from Harvard University, becoming the second African American to earn a doctorate from Harvard. As a historian, Woodson studied Black American culture in relation to the American education system. He became interested in the ways in which the legacy of slavery affected educational and intellectual attainment within the Black American community.

Slave laws had explicitly forbidden the teaching of enslaved Black Americans to read and write, and this helped to create a multigenerational educational disparity that greatly affected the degree to which Black American contributions to history were recorded. Woodson believed that this early educational imbalance placed later Black Americans at a disadvantage with regard to educational achievement and that this further affected Black Americans’ ability to preserve their own history. Woodson pioneered a number of initiatives meant to address this issue, including founding the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (later the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, ASALH) in 1915, which began publishing the Journal of Negro History (later the Journal of African American History) in 1916.

Woodson initially found little support for his efforts outside of a small number of academics who purchased subscriptions to his publication. Eventually, Woodson’s initiatives attracted the attention of Julius Rosenwald, a Jewish businessman and philanthropist from Springfield, Illinois. Partially because he was a Jewish American, Rosenwald had a keen interest in helping marginalized groups. He dedicated 100 dollars per quarter to Woodson’s journal, becoming the first White American to support Woodson and the ASALH. With this funding, Woodson was able to expand publication of the journal.

In 1926, Woodson and the ASALH designated the second week in February as National Negro Week; they chose the week because it contains the birthdays of both Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, two major figures in Black American history. From the beginning, Woodson made it clear that he intended Negro History Week to serve as a focal point for “celebrating” the role of Black Americans in American history, rather than for airing grievances regarding the continued discrimination and racism suffered by Black Americans. Woodson wrote in one of his annual bulletins regarding the event, “If a race has no history, if it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world.”

During the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, some Black American leaders spoke out against National Negro Week, calling it a relatively superficial gesture to address the ongoing prejudice and inequality present in the educational system. During the United States Bicentennial, in 1976, the ASALH expanded Black History Week—as it was renamed in 1972—into a month-long annual observance. In a speech delivered that year, President Gerald R. Ford praised the concept, saying that “we can seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”

Black History Month gradually became more commercial into the twenty-first century, with many corporations using the month to produce products aimed at Black American audiences. This led to increased criticism from within the Black American community. In 1986, the United States Congress passed, and President Ronald Reagan signed, Public Law 99-244, which formally established Black History Month as a federally designated observance.

During the 1980s, the concept of Black History Month spread internationally. In the United Kingdom, the Greater London Council and a coalition of African European leaders helped to initiate a Black History Month in Britain, which is observed in October. In 1995, Toronto Member of Parliament Jean Augustine proposed, and the House of Commons unanimously passed, a motion to recognize Black History Month in Canada in the month of February. This parliamentary move came as part of a long-developing series of minor initiatives to recognize the contributions of Black Canadians, especially focused in Canada’s major cities.

Issitt, M. (2021). Black History Month: Overview. Salem Press Encyclopedia.

By the beginning of the third decade of the twenty-first century, observances of Black History Month were held in nearly every city and state in the United States. The public school systems in most states were directed to present at least some programs aimed at addressing Black American history and culture. In addition, numerous artistic and cultural presentations were scheduled to coincide with Black History Month. Many industries, from culinary to film, scheduled events and programs specific to the Black American experience. The Pan African Film Festival (PAFF) was the largest event held in the United States to celebrate Black History Month, featuring two weeks of performances by Black American artists and filmmakers. The US Census Bureau has released a special set of statistics regarding the state of the Black American population each year to coincide with the beginning of Black History Month.

Since 1996, each US president has had the duty of issuing a public announcement to determine a theme for that year’s Black History Month celebration, meant to convey a general focus on some specific area within the theme of Black American achievement. Official Black History Month themes in the twenty-first century have included “Celebrating Community: A Tribute to Black Fraternal, Social, and Civic Institutions” (2006) and “African Americans and the Civil War” (2011). The 2020 theme for Black History Month was “African Americans and the Vote,” which commemorated the 150th anniversary of the Fifteenth Amendment. While the 2021 theme then centered upon the Black family, the 2022 theme was "Black Health and Wellness."

Criticism of Black History Month has become more common in popular culture, though few prominent Black American leaders and scholars have spoken out against the practice. Modern criticisms of Black History Month have typically fallen into two general categories: the belief that Black American history is too significant to the nation to be properly addressed in only a month-long period, and the belief that the separation of Black American history from the rest of American history serves to intensify divisions between racial groups rather than to help end racism.

By the beginning of the third decade of the twenty-first century, the debate regarding the observation of Black History Month had been particularly shaped by the political and social status of Black Americans and other marginalized groups following an increased discussion of racial justice issues such as police brutality and the killing by law-enforcement officers of unarmed Black people and the especially divisive election of Donald Trump as president in 2016. As of 2020, many commentators felt that Black History Month, while first and foremost continuing to emphasize Black American history, remained relevant in that it could also serve as a time for Americans to reflect on learning from the past and how the effects of that time are still present in American society, including in the forms of racist ideology and the persistent suppression of votes for marginalized groups. Though the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, which several activists and health experts emphasized was most adversely impacting communities of color, meant that most of the in-person commemorations held for Black History Month could not occur as traditionally planned in February 2021, many cities, states, and individual institutions honoring Black History Month adapted to create and offer virtual events that included panel sessions, art exhibitions, and online versions of festivals.

Issitt, M. (2021). Black History Month: Overview. Salem Press Encyclopedia.

Dagbovie, Pero Gaglo. The Early Black History Movement: Carter G. Woodson and Lorenzo Johnston Greene. University of Illinois Press, 2007.

Gay, Roxane. “The Price of Black Ambition.” Virginia Quarterly Review, vol. 90, no. 4, 2014, vol. 54–59. Academic Search Complete, Accessed 3 Nov. 2015.

Goffe, Leslie. “USA: The Brigade Against Black History Month.” New African, vol. 532, 2013, pp. 16–19. Academic Search Premier. Accessed 13 Jan. 2014.

Hammond, Zaretta. “Five Things Not to Do during Black History Month.” Education Digest, vol. 79, no. 5, 2014, pp. 19–21. Canadian Reference Centre, Accessed 3 Nov. 2015.

Hammond, Zaretta. “Four Things To Do During Black History Month.” Education Digest, vol. 79, no. 5, 2014, pp. 16–18. OmniFile Full Text Mega (H.W. Wilson). Accessed 13 Jan. 2014.

Harriston, Keith. "Is Black History Month Still Relevant? 'Absolutely Yes,' One Historian Says." NBC News, 12 Feb. 2020, Accessed 4 May 2020.

Jamison, Dennis. “African American History Month: To Be or Not to Be?” Washington Times, 2 Feb. 2012. Accessed 20 Aug. 2012.

King, Colbert I. "This Black History Month, Let's Focus on the Present." The Washington Post, 31 Jan. 2020,‗story.html. Accessed 4 May 2020.

King, LaGarrett J., and Keffrelyn Brown. “Once a Year to Be Black: Fighting against Typical Black History Month Pedagogies.” Negro Educational Review, vol. 65, no. 1–4, 2014, pp. 23–43. Academic Search Complete, Accessed 3 Nov. 2015.

Landa, Melissa Hare. “Deconstructing Black History Month: Three African American Boys’ Exploration of Identity.” Multicultural Perspectives, vol. 14, no. 1, 2012, pp. 11–17.

Lewis, Gregory. “In Post-Racial America: Black History Month Still Relevant.” Sun Sentinel, 31 Jan. 2011. Accessed 20 Aug. 2012.

Vaughan, Ashley. "Five Ways You Can Celebrate Black History Month Virtually." CNN, 2 Feb. 2021, Accessed 15 Nov. 2021.

“Why Not Everyone Supports Black History Month.” PBS NewsHour, 16 Feb. 2012. Accessed 20 Aug. 2012.

Williams, Jasmin K. “Carter G. Woodson: The Father of Black History Month.” New York Amsterdam News, 28 Feb. 2013, p. 28.

Williams, Tyrone. “The Problem of Black History.” Nieve Roja Review, 2002. Accessed 20 Aug. 2012.

The History of Black History Month