In February, the shortest month of the year, American communities, congregations, colleges and schools, social and fraternal groups, state and local governmental bodies, and corporate entities, among others, typically pause to celebrate Black History Month. This annual celebration was launched in 1915 by Dr. Carter G. Woodson, dubbed “the father of Black history.” It remained a weeklong celebration until 1970, when it became Black History Month.
As a public-school student in the Arkansas Delta in the 1950s and 1960s, Negro History was a required social studies class for all “colored” students, as we were called back then. In fact, it was in my Negro history class, and through the Weekly Reader, that I was introduced to such Black luminaries as Booker T. Washington, Carter G. Woodson, Mary McLeod Bethune, George Washington Carver, Langston Hughes, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Thurgood Marshall, Jacob Lawrence, and Ralph Bunche. I was inspired by their commitment to equity and excellence and to the uplift of Black people, long before the current era of diversity and inclusion.
During this year’s Black History Month celebration, many mayors and governors will issue proclamations extolling the importance of celebrating Black History Month. Ironically, according to an analysis by Education Week, since January 2021, 44 states have introduced bills or taken steps that would restrict teaching critical race theory or limit how teachers can discuss racism and sexism.
More than a dozen states, including my home state of Arkansas, have passed legislation containing such prohibitions. And recently, two days after being sworn into office, Arkansas’s first female governor, Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed an executive order banning the use of the term “Latinx.” Among the plethora of education and economic issues facing the “Natural State,” as Arkansas is called for the beauty of its natural environment, the governor chose to commence her gubernatorial term by focusing on race. At the risk of sounding cynical, I can’t help but wonder if she is seeking to curry favor with certain politicians or factions within the Republican party.
Just before the kickoff of the 2023 Black History Month celebration, Governor DeSantis grabbed national headlines by announcing that the state would ban public schools from participating in a pilot of the College Board’s AP course on African American Studies. The governor and his staff denounced the curriculum as being “woke” and contrary to Florida law. Whether in response to Mr. DeSantis or for pedagogical reasons, the changes made by the College Board were interpreted by many scholars and political pundits as a capitulation to those on the right.
In fact, some critics accused the College Board of not just making minor changes but stripping the course of substantive content critical to gaining a comprehensive understanding of the African American experience in the United States. After all, they argue, the proposed AP course is African American Studies, not a history course. No matter what one calls it, as a Black baby boomer from the Deep South who experienced firsthand the history that makes Mr. DeSantis and his minions uncomfortable, I believe we should use this moment to engage in substantive and courageous conversations on topics related to race, racism, and racial inequality.
Recently, when I mentioned to a longtime friend and colleague the importance of celebrating Black History Month by engaging in courageous conversations and bold action, she asked me to say more about what such conversations and actions would look like, to which I replied:
First, using factual historical information and lived experiences, Black academics and public intellectuals, working with community-based civic groups, must take the lead in facilitating authentic public conversations on a range of contemporary topics that arouse the negative reactions of right-wing elected officials who seek to exploit issues like DEI, Critical Race Theory, wokeness, and affirmative action to secure the votes of like-minded voters.
Second, given the passage of anti-Black education legislation, and the banning of books critical to students in elementary and secondary public schools obtaining a comprehensive understanding of American history and Black history, now is the time to resurrect the Freedom Schools curriculum, developed in the 1960s by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Often working with Historically Black Colleges (HBCUs) and staffed by students, freedom schools sought to promote education for Black transformation and liberation. Needless to say, this philosophy of education is just as relevant today as it was more than 50 ago. One example of a contemporary initiative is the Children’s Defense Fund Freedom Schools program, inspired by the Mississippi Freedom Summer project of 1964.
Third, it is time for all voters who avow a commitment to educational equity, justice, and inclusion to hold those persons for whom they cast a ballot accountable. In observing elected officials in action for the better part of half a century, I would note that most of them want to be reelected and are hesitant to vote against the wishes of their constituents, unless they feel there are no consequences to do otherwise. The withholding of their vote is the most effective and powerful tool voters have for holding elected officials accountable and making sure they are not used as political pawns by politicians whose personal agendas often usurp the will of their constituents.
Fourth, history has shown that two of the most effective strategies for gaining the attention of rightwing lawmakers are strategic protests and sustained economic boycotts. The women’s suffrage movement, the Montgomery bus boycott, the Vietnam war protests, and anti-apartheid protests and corporate divestments are all prime examples of concrete positive outcomes when people of goodwill come together to take a stand against racism, sexism, and the denial of human rights by ensconced power brokers. Were it not for the power of economic boycotts, the confederate flag would still be flying over South Carolina, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday would not be a holiday in Arizona—and Blacks would still be required to sit in the back of the bus!
It is time for Black people to stop begging racists of all iterations and affiliations to do what is right. It is time to hit them where it hurts most: in the pocketbook and at the ballot box. Don’t take my word for it. Instead, study the history that Governor DeSantis would prevent students from studying—the history that allegedly makes white folks uncomfortable. Collectively, Blacks, Hispanics, Indigenous, Asian, LGBTQ+ and other historically disenfranchised peoples have unlimited influence and impact if they are willing to coalesce and pool their actions.
In 1857, the legendary Frederick Douglass wrote these words, in support of women’s suffrage:
“If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
We cannot allow Black history to be banned or distorted. The stakes are too high. Black history is the vital beating heart of American history, no matter how threatened some may be by this truth. The time for handwringing and hashtags is past. Now is the time to hold ourselves accountable for achieving the progress we wish to see, rather than expecting those in power to do the right thing. Through courageous conversations and bold action, we can be the change we wish to see.
Dr. Charlie Nelms is a veteran higher education administrator and chancellor emeritus of North Carolina Central University.