03 March, 2022
As a city founded by a Black man, it is only fitting that Chicago would birth the concept of Black History Month.
In the summer of 1915, a University of Chicago alumni named Carter G. Woodson traveled from Washington D.C. to Chicago for the fiftieth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. The event displayed the works of Black intellectuals and progress made by African-Americans. It attracted thousands of African-Americans across the country, and inspired Woodson to create the idea of a Negro History Week. The idea became popular by the late 1960s, aided by anti-imperialist efforts and protests for racial equality. The week naturally evolved into a month, and was formally recognized by former President Gerald R. Ford in 1976 as Black History Month.
Despite it being the shortest month of the year, there is genuine value in Black History Month taking place in February. The second week of February holds both Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass’ birthdays, and both figures played pivotal roles in African-American emancipation and education.
Mari Bonilla, a sophomore at Atholton, reiterated the importance of Black History Month, “It’s insanely important because we built this society. A lot of Black people who literally formed how the world works today are still not recognized. Black History Month pulls all that up, and it’s important to have.” Sitara Canada, a freshman at Atholton, echoed this sentiment. “It’s important to recognize these figures who have built who we are today, where we are, and how we’ve come so far,” said Canada. “We have to recognize those who have done so much for us.” During the Black History Month door decorating contest, Mrs. Street won the first place award for her door dedicated to Afro-Latin heroes.
Black History Month has inherent value because it grants Black people rare positive visibility. However, the month has faced criticism for a number of reasons.
One point of criticism is the shallow level of education that takes place during February. Doreen St. Felix, a social critic for the New Yorker, discussed this. “We’ve seen that it’s [Black History Month] very quickly taken on this character where we pay lip service to very recognizable Black figures. There is not really an effort to make anything more than shallow inquiries into what we might call the breadth of Black American history.”
On 60 Minutes, Morgan Freeman, an Academy Award winning actor, criticized the concept of Black History Month for the same reason. “You’re going to relegate my history to a month?” The actor asked incredulously. “Which month is White history month?”
Another critique is the commercialization of Black History Month. Corporations have formed a habit of exploiting the Black experience for profit (for example, the Kendall Jenner exploitative Pepsi ad). On the topic, Folajinmi Awofeso, a senior in Atholton, said, “It’s commercialized to the point where people will know about it. You have the teacher that will try to formulate a lesson. And in a negative way, it’s become a corporate scheme. Like stores that sell really expensive Black Lives Matter t-shirts, but the actual profit doesn’t go anywhere. It’s both positive and negative because it gets taken advantage of.”
It is impossible to condense the wide expanse of the Black experience into twenty-eight days of learning. Black people are more than enslavement and segregation. Their history does not start with the European colonization of Africa. They are far more than the tragedies summarized in a history textbook.
Black History Month has also faced criticism for its America-centric focus. Most, if not all, of the education on Black history focuses on a select number of African-Americans. The Black diaspora– the name that describes the global Black community– stretches from the Americas to South Asia. Black Italians still fight to be seen as true Italians. Afro-Latinos are often erased from mainstream representation. February offers the perfect chance to shine the spotlight on these groups, but the opportunity is passed over year after year.
“We need to include more of the Black diaspora,” said Ope Ogunmolawa, a sophomore at Atholton. “Usually when we learn something about Black History Month, it’s Ruby Bridges, MLK. But we need to be more open minded.”
Despite these criticisms, Black History Month should not be treated as a completely flawed event. The representation that it gives to Black Americans is priceless. Even though it has been over a century since Carter G. Woodson created the idea, Black youth still feel the impact of it today. Folajinmi Awofeso summarized these sentiments best: “You and I talking right now is Black history because of what our ancestors went through. It doesn’t matter where you came from.”