At the start of February, when the city I call home, Bloomington, Indiana, kicked off its annual Black History Month (BHM) celebration, I was by far the oldest person in the room, and I had myself a front row seat, too! You see, having been forced to sit in the back of the waiting room at the local Greyhound bus station, and to sit in the back of the bus once we boarded, and being forced to go to a white person’s back door while growing up in the Arkansas Delta, the last time I sat in the back of any venue or vehicle, or drank from a Colored Only water fountain, was in the early 1960s.
These days, to avoid sitting in the back of a room, I always arrive early, and if necessary, I will squeeze through crowded rows of an event hall, theater, or place of worship to avoid accepting a seat in the back. In restaurants and on airplanes, I always refuse seats in the back or near the restroom. It hasn’t taken long for my millennial-generation son and members of his friendship circle to recognize that life’s pain, not paranoia, is the primary driver of my predilections.
Before our contemporary highly orchestrated Black History Month observance, which began in 1970, my generation celebrated Negro History Week, launched in 1926 by Dr. Carter G. Woodson, a prolific scholar, journalist, and activist, regarded as the “father of Black history.” Along with others, in 1915 Woodson founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH), which published the Journal of Negro History. While I do not know what Professor Woodson’s annual salary was at the height of his prodigious career at Howard University, if I were a betting person, I would wager that it paled in comparison to the fees commanded by Black public intellectuals who grace the stage at our annual Black History Month and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. commemorations across America.
Do not think for a moment I am suggesting speakers should not be compensated for their knowledge, expertise, popularity, and speech-making acumen. Quite the contrary: I believe they should be compensated appropriately! However, I believe the time has come for us to seriously reconsider how we celebrate the history, life, and cultural traditions of African Americans. This is especially true given the plethora of bills introduced and passed by legislators dictating what faculty at all levels of education can and cannot teach. If asked, most legislators I know cannot even define “critical race theory,” so they prohibit teaching anything that makes white students uncomfortable!
How then would I, a Black baby boomer and parent, who came of age in the Deep South in 1960s, recommend we approach the celebration of Black History Month? In the interest of transparency and full disclosure, before proceeding, I would note that unlike Professor Woodson, I am not an historian, and this is not the first time I have floated these ideas that some might consider heretical. Even so, I offer them with the hope that they strike a responsive chord with enough people to spark a conversation about one of the most public celebrations in America: Black History Month.
First, if future Black History Month celebrations are to be more authentic, enlightening, and thought-provoking, the context of these celebrations must be deeply rooted in American history and the complete experience of African Americans, no matter how uncomfortable some people may be with selected aspects of that history. I fear that we do unintentional harm under the banner of Black History Month when our celebrations are superficial, or when selective facts are omitted to prevent making some people uncomfortable. It is well beyond time for K-12 schools, colleges, and universities, to stop fixating on Black history quizzes, and essay and poster contests, and to stop viewing these activities as representing an adequate celebration of Black History Month.
Second, while we should all be thankful to Professor Woodson and other scholars and activists who played a pivotal role in launching Negro History Week, and later Black History Month, we do a disservice to current and future generations of students if we fail to build on the accomplishments of those early trailblazers by working to make Black History a year-round, continuous learning process, rather than a symbolic celebration during the shortest month of the year. The continuous learning of which I speak is not limited to formal, high-brow lectures in the halls of academe, attended primarily by university students, scholars, and aspiring academics, followed by formal receptions where culturally appropriate gastronomic items are served. In fact, many college and university food service providers across the country mark the end of Black History Month by serving up hefty portions of Soul Food, despite the known unhealthy effects when consumed frequently and excessively. Thankfully, there are several notable chefs who are taking up the challenge of making Soul Food both delicious and healthy!
Third, an important but frequently overlooked dimension of Black History Month is family history. I came to this realization during my family’s annual reunion for sixty-eight consecutive years. That’s right: 68 years! The COVID pandemic was the only force powerful enough to halt our in-person gatherings in Mississippi, Arkansas, Illinois, or Tennessee for nearly seven decades. Personally, I relished the opportunity to pass along stories told to me by my maternal grandmother, my mother and her siblings and cousins, some of which were painful, but all of which were life-affirming and empowering. My most important possession is a taped conversation with my mother on her 85th birthday, shortly after her third major stroke, when her physicians announced she would never recover her voice nor her ability to walk. Of course, she proved them wrong, and she would go on to share important family history lessons for another five years.
Fourth, to emphasize the importance of Black history in the development of positive self-concepts and acceptance, and to promote reading, one of the most important contributions we can all make is to give our children, grandchildren, and other young relatives and neighbors, books, especially those by Black authors, as gifts throughout the year. One of the most significant negative effects of poverty is how it can impact a child’s ability to dream. As a child living in abject poverty in the rural south in the 1950s, reading provided an opportunity for me take incredible trips throughout our nation and around the world. Today, my home library is filled with a wide selection of books by Black authors, including popular children’s books, on nearly every subject imaginable. Candle-Lightin’ Time, a beautifully illustrated book written by the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar and published in 1901, is one of my most prized possessions.
Among my fondest memories as a young parent were those weekly Saturday morning trips to the bookstore or to the public library with our son. We would always leave with bags overflowing with books, several of which often became topics of conversation during the week. Even today, visits to the bookstore, no matter where we are in the world, continue to be one of our favorite family activities.
Finally, in recent months, a rash of bills have been introduced in state legislative bodies to ban certain books, many of which are authored by Black authors, or contain content that some White people find objectionable. We have even witnessed the sorry sight of books being burned. In the spirit of embracing and celebrating Black history, indeed American history, the most important collective form of protest we can mount is to buy and read as many banned books by Black authors as possible. Why? Because those books contain certain truths that many insecure and power-hungry people prefer, we do not learn. If that’s not reason enough to reconsider how we celebrate Black History Month, I am not sure I can proffer a more convincing rationale.
There is a proverb that says: “It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.” This Black History Month and throughout the year, let us light candles made of books, history, knowledge, and wisdom: candles that can be beacons for the future we create.
Dr. Charlie Nelms is Chancellor Emeritus of North Carolina Central University.