By Leon A. Rodrigues
Over the years, many of my students have told me that they choose not attend Black History Month events because they feel it is designed for African Americans to celebrate “their own history.” I consistently respond that the history of African Americans is American history and therefore is our shared history.
To those who believe that Black history is to be celebrated only by African Americans, I raise two key objections. First, African Americans are not the only Black people in U.S. society. There are numerous groups of Africans, Jamaicans, Haitians, Dominicans, Brazilians and others residing in the United States who are regarded as Black and who share a legacy of racial oppression. I, for one, was raised in South Africa and I regard my personal history, and that of my country, as Black history.
Second, I often ask those who would diminish Black history: What about the White presence in Black history? All of us are actors in history. If Black people could contribute to the American economy even though they were deprived of opportunities and suffered the worst circumstances under severe discrimination, what was the role of those who were not Black and thus not subjected to this kind of systematic oppression? Certainly there were Whites who have advocated for human rights and an end to unfair practices that target African Americans (abolitionists, Underground Railroad participants, for example). An integral part of understanding Black history is asking the question: In what ways have Whites either remained quiet recipients of privilege or spoken up when they witnessed injustice?
The way I see it, the experience of Africans, African Americans, and other Blacks in the United States has been largely overlooked, vilified, downplayed, or relegated to a kind of victimhood—and none of these approaches do justice to the lived experiences of Blacks. The mainstream media makes sparse mention of Black history unless to tokenize it and the topic is not often taught in our primary, secondary, or college texts. As a result, White people, and sometimes even Black people, lack knowledge of Black history; nor do they know how to fill in these gaps in the nation’s historical narrative.
Black history can be an invitation for all of us to celebrate American progress and should fill all communities in this country with pride and joy—not just African Americans. The spirit in which African Americans have contributed—including leadership of the Civil Rights Movement—led to anti-discrimination legislation and human rights for all Americans. Moreover, the Civil Rights movement heightened citizen participation that, I would say, led to a strengthened democracy.
Why, you might ask, was February designated as Black History Month in the first place? African-American students in my class have often expressed frustration and respond that during other months the history of their ancestors is nonexistent. This is why Dr. Carter G. Woodson, an author, historian, journalist and founder of the journal of Negro History, launched the first Negro History Week in February 1926.
Dr. Woodson was the second African American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard University (W.E.B. Du Bois was the first), is known as the father of Black history. He wanted to see the teaching of the history of Black Americans in the nation’s public schools, particularly to African American children. Negro History Week later became known nationally recognized as Black History Month in the mid-1970s.
As a result of these and other efforts, many are now aware of the African (American) contribution to the wealth in this nation as well as numerous scientific, cultural, and literary contributions that all Americans benefit from today. And, African Americans continue to make remarkable contributions in every sector of American life through economic progress, culture, religion, and the arts. This needs to be celebrated—and not just in February.
Black history also includes the spiritual awakening led by the Black church in this country. It is the Black church that spoke out and led the movement that fought against Southern brutality and oppression of Black people. It is the Black church that brought American Christianity to reflect on its sinful condition—supporting racial segregation and the brutal treatment of African Americans—and the Black church that invited other Christians to wrestle with this brokenness within the body of Christ.
Some of my students tell me that they feel ashamed when encountering Black history. This goes both ways. It is difficult to learn about how your ancestors were brutalized and it is also shameful to know that your ancestors were part of the brutalizing or were indifferent. The church needs to lead us in finding ways to overcome this guilt and shame by explicating the sin, confessing, seeking forgiveness and reconciling in our country, just as South Africa participated in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Paying attention to Black history is one way to connect in concrete ways with African Americans in your community. African Americans have shown a deep love for country and indomitable spirit that was not broken by enslavement, rejection, or stereotypes. We must celebrate this spirit of freedom if we are to come together as a united church.
February can be a significant time in which we reflect, seek each other’s presence, worship, and express gratitude for our life together. As people of faith active in our communities, we can make compacts to work together for justice—all year long.
- Stake the claim in your congregation that Black history is an integral part of our shared American history. Celebrate it. This is a way to acknowledge the incredible efforts of Black brothers and sisters to persist and thrive.
- Show appreciation for how Black people pushed the church to be more compassionate and speak up in the midst of evil practices.
- Support continued efforts for equity and inclusion in your congregation and community. Contemplate and develop acts of confession and reparations for those who have been historically marginalized or denied justice.
- Pray, teach, and preach about the call of the gospel to serve the oppressed, bring hope, and to love justice. Don’t be afraid to ask: Why is this the way it is? How did it come about and, what can do as a church to address these inequities?
- Learn and study more about famous people of African descent in America and all over the world. Encourage children to embrace these role models irrespective of their ethnic heritage or skin color.
- Read authors from other ethnic groups and who hold different perspectives, particularly ones who may have first-hand experience with Black history throughout the world.
About the Author
Leon A. Rodrigues is director for diversity, equity and inclusion at Luther Seminary. He is a passionate educator and advocate for social justice.