Relevance of Black History Month

Black History is American History

Recently, I overheard a conversation shared by two colleagues, who pondered the need to observe Black History Month. “Why”, questioned one of the individuals “do we need to set aside an entire month to recognize Black history?” “After all, his colleague chimed in, “we don’t have a white history month”. While I resisted the urge to interrupt their conversation and add my opinion, their comments caused me to pause and reflect.

Immediately, my mind wandered back to a regrettable situation that occurred last month on the campus of Arizona State University, when members of the TKE fraternity elected to host a “civil rights” party on MLK weekend. During the festivities, the party-goers donned hip hop clothing adorned with gang-related bandanas. To top it off, the fraternity members and their guests posed for smiling pictures while drinking from watermelon cups.  Immediately following the party, they posted their festive pictures on social media for millions to see. Clearly, the lack of appreciation for the significance of the holiday led members of TKE to mock it.

Shortly thereafter, during a discussion in my communication theory class about family legacy and its influence on our decision making and behaviors, I shared a story about my own great-grandfather, who had once been enslaved. I was shocked to discover that out of a class of 25 students, only one had heard of the Emancipation Proclamation. This legislation, which was signed by former President Abraham Lincoln, simultaneously freed enslaved Americans and ignited the continued rebellion of several southern states during the Civil War. As I shared a “quick and dirty” explanation of the significance of this piece of legislation, I asserted that if the act had not been passed in 1862, I would not have been afforded the opportunity to stand before them today as their communications professor. Since the students have repeatedly expressed enjoyment of our class, my comments seemed to capture their full attention.

While I’m delighted that my students think of me as great instructor, and not merely a great African American instructor, it is important to understand the significance that race and cultural pride plays in the development of individual self esteem. Self-efficacy, our ability to achieve success in life, is dependent, at least in part, upon our exposure to positive role models who look like us. When we see ourselves as a significant part of American culture, we are more likely to fully participate as productive citizens. Conversely, when we see ourselves standing on the periphery of society, we are less likely to fully engage in it. In the same manner, when members other cultures see members of our cultural or racial group in a less than positive light, by extension, they often reach less than positive conclusions about us as well.

As an academic, I fully recognize my influence on my impressionable young adult students. This is why, during Latin American history month, I deliberately assigned my students to attend a lecture and luncheon in celebration of Cesar Chavez. While I was not surprised to learn that many white students had no clue about Chavez, I was surprised to learn how few Latino students knew of Chavez’ contributions to migrant farm workers’ rights. In the classroom debrief that followed the luncheon, all students: Latino, African American, Asian, and White, were able to articulate the significance of Chavez’ contribution to American society.

The beauty of American history lies in the diversity of each of its history makers. The bottom line is that the achievements of African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, Asians, and Europeans have contributed to American history. Our understanding of the contribution of each history maker helps us to better understand how our country evolved into the diverse and dynamic society that we all enjoy today. And, frankly, when we are able to see individuals who look like us achieve notable recognition for their contributions, we are better able to envision ourselves achieving similar accomplishments.  For it is only when we learn to celebrate ourselves that we can truly learn to celebrate others.

So, why do we set aside 28 days during the month of February to celebrate Black history? Very simply, in so doing, we celebrate American history. Black history is American history!