The Case for Black History

By Dr. Makini King, Director
UMKC Division of Diversity and Inclusion

We should not take Black History Month for granted. It exists for a reason and matters as much today, as it did when it was founded 100 years ago. When I was a young girl February meant attending a multitude of events at school and in the community with my friends and family to celebrate and take pride in our contributions as black people. We celebrated many of the greats like Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, George Washington Carver, Harriet Tubman, and Benjamin Banneker. And at the end of the month, in the blink of an eye, the frequency and intensity, which defined my Februarys, would abruptly cease. Outside of church, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Junteenth and the occasional themed festival, there were no other concerted efforts to exclaim black worth to the world in community with other non-black people.

I have come to expect the consistency of Black History Month. I am delighted and encouraged by all the events that occur in a convenient and perfectly packaged month, but I think I have been missing the point. Perhaps we all have. Black History Month is not solely about remembering a few select figureheads who did courageous work to progress America. It is about recognizing that if the issue is not forced, black history would be erased.

Black History Month (originally Negro History Week) was founded by Carter G. Woodson, a black academic, who in the early aughts of the 20th century, wanted to formalize the commemoration of black contributions to not only American civilization, but the world.

When we are called upon to think about the major contributors to American progress, most of us immediately conjure up images of old white men; George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson. We cannot help ourselves. The messages that we receive in our text books, our media, movies, and even in our common language, suggest that these are the only people who have contributed. Their value is automatically assumed and is as certain as the prominence of their portraits on American currency. The average American is otherwise hard pressed to easily name 10 non-white people who have made major contributions to civilization.

The fact is that black people, along with Asian, Indigenous, and Latinx people, have long been responsible, in part, for many of the joys America extols, often despite their marginalized status. Black contributions should not be tokenized, black history is not a single paragraph or chapter in a textbook, and it is not an elective, it is an equitable part of the equation. The erasure of black history on a global scale means that many of us never learned that black history includes not only the origin of man, but the existence of thriving civilizations, invention and complexity for hundreds of thousands of years before European colonization (see Berlin Conference).

In the 1920s Negro History Week (now Black History Month) was a response to the general belief that Black People had contributed nothing to world history. Recall that only two years ago Iowa Congressman Steve King questioned the contributions of minorities (which he called “subgroups”) to civilization. Although most of us, when asked, would vehemently deny this claim, the climate in which we are all immersed today provides little evidence of black contributions beyond a few footnotes.  When the history of black contributions is erased, it is only logical to conclude that it does not exist.

Black History Month is critical in the struggle against black erasure. The month will no longer be needed when our automatic recollections of who did what, are just as diverse as they are in reality. When we just as easily cite Lewis Howard Latimer as we do Thomas Edison. When we know as much about African Civilizations as we do European ones. Black people have long played a significant role despite being erased from the record. So the next time you visit a blood bank, sit at a traffic light (using your automatic shifts), pick up a telephone, eat potato chips, turn on a lightbulb, or enjoy the freedoms granted by any civil rights legislation, consider that none of that would have been possible without black contributions. This Black History Month, I invite you to go down that rabbit hole of Black History and learn the full story and when February ends, stay in that rabbit hole.