Why is Black History Month Important for Everyone?

Photo by Jen Zhu '18 | Black Lives Matter signs were placed around Smith’s campus over winter break.

Photo by Jen Zhu ’18 | Black Lives Matter signs were placed around Smith’s campus over winter break.

Sunnie Ning ’18
Contributing Writer 

 “Isn’t Black History Month about celebrating the great accomplishments of black people? What does it have to do with me?” I don’t know how many Smithies hold this opinion, but I did encounter it on my Facebook newsfeed.  It’s shocking to me how many people think black history is irrelevant to this day.  In 1988, the Smithsonian Institution surveyed 10,000 Americans on slavery. Ninety-two percent of white respondents felt slavery had little meaning to them, responding “my family did not arrive until after the end of slavery.” While statistics might be different now, this is exactly why Black History Month is important: to learn why black history matters to all of us.

How did Black History Month come to exist?

In 1926, the great black historian Carter G. Woodson and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History announced that the second week of February would be celebrated as “Negro History Week.”  During this time, most history books simply omitted any African American history and the central role black Americans played in the birth of America. In 1976, the U.S. government expanded Negro History Week to Black History Month. Black History Month continues to recognize the legacy of black history in American history.

Why is Black History Month still important in today’s context?

We can tell a great deal about a country from what it chooses to forget. Black history is definitely an important piece of our history that is left out or distorted. After all, maintaining status quo is way easier than addressing the problem. To take current events out of their historical context is an efficient way to mask the white supremacy in our society and dismiss the Black Lives Matter movement as “sensitive,” “irrational” or “misguided.”
Slavery, segregation and the Civil Rights movement – these important events should not just be a page in our history books. The impact of historical events extends way beyond their time, it is reflected in our behavior, thought, public opinion and laws.  We imagine that time erases the connection of history to present, but this is nothing but a naïve dismissal. Black History Month is an opportunity to relearn our history through black historical perspectives, create awareness for the struggles and the challenges faced by our black peers, and understand the bigger picture of the Black Lives Matter movement. It is important to understand that black history month is not just a celebration of the black community but a way for everyone to engage in the imperative effort of thinking, acknowledging and promoting racial justice.

What’s our role in Black History Month?

As non-black students, I believe that it is critical for us to listen, self-educate and respect. In essence, it is us asking our black peers, “What is your story?” and responding by active listening and embracing. It is about throwing away that apathy, nuances and unease and really devote time to learning the story of our black peers in a respectful way. It is not about being argumentative, critical or judgmental; it is about compassion and awareness. It is not about being silent, guilty or afraid; it is about discovering a different facet of the same story that we have already heard. Black History Month is also a chance to self-educate. It is about siding with our black peers by lifting their weight of having to face our unawareness. It is about creating a space for them, handing the microphone to them and talking to our friends about them.

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