by Christal E. Carmichael, Professor of Psychology, North Carolina Central University
The celebration of Black History began long before it was called Black History Month. In fact, it began as Negro History Week by the great historian, Dr. Carter G. Woodson. In an effort to acknowledge the significant impact that the contributions of African Americans have had on the building of our nation, Dr. Woodson researched and promoted achievements by Black Americans and people of African descent.
After decades of recognition as Negro History Week, this celebration evolved into Black History Month on many College Campuses and was officially acknowledged in 1976 by President Gerald Ford as an opportunity to honor the too often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans.
A History Deserving of Year-long Celebration
On the campuses of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) across the nation, we are very intentional about celebrating and honoring our heritage throughout the year. As an HBCU, we understand the importance of being educated about our culture and therefore, implement a robust calendar of events throughout the year, inviting many speakers, entertainers, inventors, soldiers, academicians and scholars to invigorate our students and faculty. According to an article by The Century Foundation, “one study followed students for thirteen years after they graduated from college, measuring the impact of college diversity experiences like participating in a racial or cultural awareness workshop or taking an ethnic studies course. These experiences were found to have a positive effect on measures of personal growth, sense of purpose in life, recognition of racism, and participation in volunteer work during an individual’s adult life.”
Black History Month is essential to raise awareness about the unsung heroes of history that have contributed to our nation and have enriched our global society. It is therefore not limited to HBCUs only. It is widely celebrated at Predominately White Institutions (PWIs) as well. However, there is a slight difference in the way we celebrate. Although many PWIs have Black Cultural Centers on campus that provide a consistent source of education and pride for our heritage, many of the highlights of African American culture happen within Black History Month. Black History Month is the one time of year when spaces are created for Black excellence, creativity, and culture to be celebrated and highlighted on a campus that is predominately white.
Recognizing Contributions of All Sizes and Types
It is essential to recognize Black History, especially at a PWI, because much of the academia that is provided is Eurocentric. The history that is shared during these months often focuses on the famous or the exceptional—which in some ways makes it difficult for many to relate to. While we should know the lives of Harriet Tubman or Rosa Parks, we should also recognize those often left out of our narrative of celebrity; such as those who labored in the textile mills in the north of England, or those who participated in the Bristol Bus Boycott.
Rather than simply celebrate what is already very widely known and recognized, the month should also explore the defeats as well as the disappointments, so that our history is used to educate future generations that change does not come without struggle and sacrifice—and that rarely does a lone individual, no matter how successful, change society without community support within and outside of that particular culture.
Bringing the Past into the Present
North Carolina Central University commemorates Black History Month certainly during the month of February, but also throughout the year. Our University is steeped in our Black culture and throughout our everyday work and activities, we ensure that our culture is not only preserved but legitimized. We ARE Black History! We stand on the shoulders of the giants that paved the way for us. We draw strength from our history, as it serves as a connection with our ancestors that have shown us the true meaning of resilience and the ability to thrive in any, even the worst of circumstances.
So, not only do we honor by remembering, we also honor by celebrating, those who continue to be a living legacy and provide such an impeccable example for those still carrying the torch and for those that will carry it in the future. There is power in the opportunity to embrace our past, but also inspiration in the acknowledgement of our present. The continuation of these celebrations is crucial to maintain our sense of community, to maintain a connection to our roots, and continues to hold us together.
Institutions such as Morgan State University have made it a tradition to celebrate Black History with a year-long celebration of African American History and Culture with monthly convocations to remind us of the achievements of our past and honor the great contributors to African American history.
So here we are, forty-four years after the formal acknowledgment for a month of celebration, and during one of the most diverse societal times we have experienced, we continue celebrating the accomplishments of Black Americans world-wide. Although, for some, it may be a recognition that is merely acknowledged for one month; for many it is a year-long, never ending celebration and lifestyle of honor.
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