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Perspectives: Black History Month Is More Important Now Than Ever

I remember when Black History Month was Black History Week. It was during this week that all of my friends would learn about Thurgood Marshall, the first Black Supreme Court Justice and Mary McLeod Bethune who was the founder of Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach, Fla. Of course, there were countless others, but the point is how could we learn about all of these people in one week? Even at a tender age, I found it totally strange to go into the African-American vault of knowledge for one week and then close its doors until the same time next year.

For many years now the “week” has turned into an entire “month.” We are provided now with 28 or 29 days to capture and impart all of the “Black facts.” I find it a bit odd that our history, which dates back to kings and queens and yes, slaves, can be captured in one month. I believe the vast majority of people mean well when they give voice to our accomplishments for one month.

There was a time in my life, albeit brief, that I would not speak during Black History Month. My rationale simply was that if I was good enough to speak during the month of February that I was good enough to speak during the other 11 months. Obviously, I have now softened my stand about speaking during the month of February. Those of us who have achieved success have a responsibility and obligation to go into schools across America and provide African-American students with hope. The idea of being a role model is never more evident and more needed than today. When called upon to speak, we must answer the call because our elders answered the same call years ago. There is a consistent message that we must deliver to young people that says success is within your reach and that giving up is not an option. I know that I would not be fulfilling my mission had I stopped speaking in schools as my vision would be narrow and not focused on the bigger issue of educating our youth about African-American contributions.

Some would rail against there being a Black History Month at all. Some of the same people would also be opposed to March being Women’s History Month. The achievements of Blacks and women should be included in the larger dialogue. However, we aren’t; so the issue with me, at least, is that we are still not far enough along yet to eliminate either of these dedicated months. With regard to Black History Month, the perceived loss of pride that many African-American youth display is the reason that it must continue. There are many young Black students who simply don’t get it. There wouldn’t be a Black Secretary of State, Condi Rice, without a Shirley Chisholm to run for president and serve in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1968 to 1983. While America is embracing Sen. Barack Obama in his run for the presidency, he stands on the shoulders of men like Edward Brooke, the first African-American man in the U.S. Senate in the modern era. It is imperative that all of our students and African- American students in particular know that they have a long and rich history and that it just didn’t start in 1980 or whenever they were born. They need to know there would be no Chris Brown without the likes of the “Godfather of Soul” James Brown.

So I hope that just as in my lifetime we now have a Barack Obama that we can mainstream Black history into American history in a more direct and intentional way; and that students will gain a healthy appreciation for the contributions of Black people. Black history is all around them, we just have to make them aware of it.

—    Dr. James Ewers is the associate dean for student affairs and director of community partnerships at Miami University-Middletown in Ohio.

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