I’ve been sitting here, wracking my brain for some time now trying to figure out how to begin to approach the question: why should we celebrate Black History Month? Not that I don’t have my own opinion as to why we should celebrate the month, but I did what I do with all my questions these days, I asked Google. A quote from Debate.org was lucky enough to be the first result that came up on the page: “…We should not celebrate black history month or any month celebrating a certain race or ethnicity…It would be more acceptable if we celebrated something like American History Month. No race should [have] a month dedicated to it, that is wrong and discriminating on other races.”
My jaw dropped. This idea of “American History Month” was a bit of a punch to the gut, along the same lines of someone saying, “All Lives Matter” in response to the Black Lives Matter movement. Black History Month is underrated and overlooked. We need to work as a community (as the NYU Shanghai community, but also in a broader sense) to give Black History Month its due diligence when it comes to celebration and recognition.
Every year, in most contexts, Black History Month is somewhat of a hoax. The idea is great: as President Gerald Ford described it, “the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history”. However, the execution of it all tends to be inadequate. Tacking up a half-assed poster for a month about the same few black household names; every year accomplishes very little to validate our continuous contributions to society, and makes a mockery of what Black History Month is supposed to be. Not to mention, we go out of our way to commemorate 9/11, the Jewish Holocaust and Remembrance Day, it is a bit ridiculous to see the same Black History material reused every year.
The history of Black American people is not pretty and there is an important balance to be struck between fixating on our past, and dismissing our past from our minds. Centuries of chattel slavery, marginalization, and racism cannot be wiped away; there is no clean slate to be had. Every day as I exist in this world in my Black body I am not afforded the chance to forget these things; I am not afforded a clean slate. The issues we are facing were not created over the course of a month and will not cease to exist after one. As Godwin Ifedi writes, “Black History Month should never be seen as one of those events that are placed on the shelf after each celebration, to be dusted off for use the following year”. At the same time, it is crucial that we all know more about Black history than just slavery and its aftermath as to not “reinforce the white supremacist stereotypes that [keep] African Americans in a socially, politically and intellectually inferior position”.
Black History Month in the mainstream is treated as a token gesture; we weren’t given reparations like the Jews or the Japanese, instead the U.S. piggybacked on a month we gave ourselves and officially recognized it. Regardless, Black History Month has the potential to greatly impact both the Black community and those not a part of it. We are all in dire need of visualizing examples of educated, productive, innovative and successful Black figures in society that are not just entertainers of some sort (rappers, sports players, etc.). Representation of Black people in media is a concern in mainstream American culture. Representation helps mold our ideas of reality and the current “representation of African Americans [is] propagating somewhat controversial and misconstrued images of what African Americans represent”. Black people have the right to see themselves and aspire to be more than entertainers and gang members, and have the right to feel nothing but pride in the color of their skin. As for the rest of society, they have an obligation to know and be exposed to the fact that Black people, although given the short end of the stick, are never to be underestimated as we are vital, capable, participating citizens of society.
The weight of this was never more clear to me than when my younger sister used to refuse to color the people in her coloring book Black and eventually told me that she wished her hair was blonde and straight, her eyes were blue and her skin was white. The heartbreak and responsibility that has lingered past her development has given me the determination to continue advocating for the strengthening of Black people and our communities even when I am worn out and it appears pointless. Genuine agency and affirmation of Black History Month is something I believe can only move us closer to achieving this goal, and that is why, my friends, we should celebrate Black History Month.
This article was written by Nacole Abram. Please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org to get in touch.
Illustration Credit: Arshaun Darabnia