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Why African American History Month Is the Quintessential American Celebration

Dr. William B. Harvey

African American History Month marks a period in which Americans can celebrate together, because it spotlights the possibilities and the promise that the country remains poised to offer, even as we acknowledge the mistakes and shortcomings of the past. The nation owes a debt of gratitude to celebrated historian Dr. Carter G. Woodson for his conception and development of this singularly American institution which provides a shared opportunity, on an annual basis, to take a snapshot of the internal dynamics of American society, and to deliberate about where the country that most people consider to be the greatest economic power in world history is headed. Reflection and assessment are crucial mechanisms to achieving progress in any society and in this case, recognition of the inspiring accomplishments, as well as the numerous tribulations of people of African descent in America, presents the most compelling and significant articulation of the American story.

Dr. William B. HarveyDr. William B. HarveyStarting from the introduction of Africans into the colonies in 1619, and continuing until the present day, the reality is indisputable that American society has been profoundly enriched and strengthened, at each and every level during these eras, through the sacrifices and contributions of the very same group of people that it has systematically maligned and mistreated. The irony and paradox of this situation are huge and even in the face of ongoing systemic repression, these negative circumstances have been repeatedly countermanded by the persistence and resilience of African Americans, much to the nation’s benefit.

From the period of chattel slavery all the way through to the Black Lives Matter movement, America’s treatment of African Americans has reflected the overall state of the nation’s psyche and personality at the time, with gradual but contested improvements taking place on an irregular basis over time. Notwithstanding the grandly articulated American ideals of freedom, justice, and equality for all, the policies and practices of the majority white population, manifested in partnership with the various governmental agencies and social/civic organizations, were consciously aligned to limit the opportunities that were made available for the economic development, political participation, and social advancement of African Americans.

However, despite the significant obstacles that have been, and continue to be, put in their way, African Americans have demonstrated those aforementioned qualities of persistence and resilience in myriad ways that cannot be denied and dare not be overlooked. So, even as we are compelled to celebrate the changes and progress that have occurred in the nation over time, African American History Month simultaneously encourages and challenges ALL Americans to also confront the reality that the implementation of the debilitating behavioral trifecta of racism, prejudice, and discrimination continues to be embraced and practiced across the nation.

As is the case with the residents of most other nations, Americans like to see themselves presented in the best possible light, which frequently requires overlooking, or even whitewashing, both historical and contemporary circumstances that are unpleasant, but nevertheless quite real. Some social commentators contend that the development of the world’s greatest economy, undergirded by the articulation of a theoretical, yet historic, form of participatory civic engagement, along with a unifying thread of collective exceptionalism, chronicle America’s unique development of America and justify its claim to be at the apex of the evolution of Western civilization.

Acknowledging that race still matters in America is the first step toward improving the circumstances for all residents of the nation, and African American History Month compels that penetrating review, which then should lead to an analysis of the prevailing circumstances, and finally to consideration of how they can be improved. Whether one feels that the glass is half full or half empty, we are presented with a golden opportunity to consider what works and what doesn’t within society, so we can determine the most effective way to move forward.

Initiated by Dr. Woodson to counter the racist propaganda and misinformation that was being actively circulated throughout the society at that time, African American History Month has become an irreplaceable feature of American culture. The importance and value of this unifying period has been dramatically reestablished recently as, once again, a bevy of shallow political leaders and self-proclaimed patriots have emerged in the current landscape, eagerly promoting their vision of an America where reality falls victim to fantasy and dogma, while truth succumbs to falsehoods and distortion. African American History Month underscores the profound wisdom contained in the old adage that informs us clearly and directly that, “the truth will set you free”.  One wonders why this prospect seems to cause such considerable anxiety to many nationally prominent national figures and their followers.   

- Dr. William B. Harvey serves as Distinguished Scholar at the American Association for Access, Equity and Diversity in Washington, DC.

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