A Closer Look at Black History Month

From 88.9 WEKU:

Every president since Gerald Ford has honored Black History Month in February. 

But Blackness is still not celebrated year-round. WEKU talked with people about Black History Month. 

Carol Taylor-Shim is Director of the Office of Equity and Social Justice under the office of student success at the University of Kentucky. She said while she thinks Black History Month is a necessity, it brings up a complicated set of emotions for her. 

“It is hard to continue to see your history, which again, is American history, just be centered on one month. So if the only time you’re engaging with Blackness,  the only time you’re engaging with the Black community is during February, then I really do question why are you engaging at all because there’s a whole set of other months where the Black community is still Black. What are you doing the rest of the time?”  asked Taylor-Shim. 

Harriet Tubman Theater: Suite for Freedom Film at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center A star- field lights the ceiling above in the same formation as the morning President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.Credit Farshid Assassi / NURFCEdit | Remove

In 1926, the scholar Carter G. Woodson initiated Negro History Week which was the second week of February.  Chris Miller, Senior Director of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati said one reason Woodson chose February is because by 1926 many people in the Black community were celebrating the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln, who issued the Emancipation Proclamation, and African American abolitionist Frederick Douglass. Miller said over the years and decades Woodson’s Negro History Week advanced into Black History Month.  

 “His intention was never for it to be relegated to a week or a month. This is an essential   part of American History that needs to be in the textbooks, that needs to be in our educational curriculum, but we still have not made it to that destination.  If we started to integrate the history into the textbooks as it should then there wouldn’t be a need for a Black History week or month,” said Miller.  

For some people, every February there’s a debate about the usefulness of Black History Month.  Dr. Julian Vasquez Heilig, Dean in the College of Education at the University of Kentucky said the important role African Americans have played definitely needs to be integrated into our daily lives. He also feels it’s important and appropriate to continue to set aside a month for a community that’s been so integral to this nation.  

 “We set aside time for people who have been an important part of our history, people whose history has been silenced. A lot of people didn’t know that the Capitol was actually built by slaves. That was recently brought again to the fore with the events at the Capitol on January 6th,” said Vasquez Heilig.  

Vasquez Heilig said when he was growing up in the 70s’ and 80s’ Black history was sidelined. He recalls visiting a local department store that just five years ago did not have books about Black History Month available. This year, he said, is different.   “Not only do they have books but they have shirts that say Harriet, Martin, Malcolm, you know, Black history- themed apparel,” reported Vasquez Heilig. 

Dean Vasquez Heilig thinks the death of George Floyd has made a difference in the national conversation.  “There was no one that could watch what happened to George Floyd and justify it to themselves. You could see with your own eyes. And there was no way that, that situation there could be spin placed on it. Clearly you can point to last summer and you can see there is change happening,” said Vasquez Heilig. 

The complexity of Black History Month makes Albert Shumake,  Executive Director of the River City Drum Corp Cultural Arts Institute in Louisville think of the reason that Black people were brought to America in the first place. 

“And that was for chattel slavery, and to build society and be used as work and not to be looked at as equals or contributing members of society . And so what Black people have done historically, is taken the worst of what there was to offer and been able to make something good out of it. But it’s complex because we have to shine a light on it,” said Shumake. 

Northern Kentucky resident and social justice advocate Chris Brown suggests everyone take time this month to learn something they didn’t know about Black History. 

“And even try to find some parallels to how Black History has affected their own personal lives. Please know that our history is  definitely not isolated to the month of February. You don’t have history, without Black history, period,” exclaimed Brown.

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