Black History Month: Looking Back, and Forward

February is Black History Month. It’s also National Bird-Feeding Month, Parent Leadership Month, and LGBT History Month (in the UK). Those are February’s official designations; Unofficially, it’s Super Bowl Month, Valentine’s Month, Presidents’ Month, and—like any other month—a host of events, holidays, celebrations, days and weeks honoring various ideas, figures, and cultural institutions. And, just a few days from now, it’s over: February is, coincidentally, also the shortest month.

For twenty-eight days (twenty-nine during a leap year), Americans observe and remember African-American history by honoring the people of African descent considered important and influential to our country’s legacy: the inventors, the pioneers, the thinkers, the activists, the speakers, the artists, the radicals, the athletes, the politician, the slaves, the presidents. And twenty-eight (or twenty nine) days later, February ends… and with it, Black History Month.

Then what?

The Origin of Black History Month

It’s hard to imagine cramming the entire history of a people into a four-week period, harder still to imagine one week. But that’s how Black History Month started, in 1926—as Negro History Week.

The history of Black History Month began eighty-seven years ago, when Carter Godwin Wilson declared the the second week of February Negro History Week. The time of the year was chosen to coincide with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. Wilson, an African American himself, was one of the first historians to document African-American history, as well as the founder of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. He originally conceived of Negro History Week as a provisional holiday, hoping that its celebration would become unnecessary once “black history” became essential to the teaching of American history.

Negro History Week was an immediate hit among black communities and progressive white allies. Mayors of metropolitan areas across the U.S. expressed support for the holiday and aided the campaign for federal endorsement. In 1969, black students at Kent State University led the charge to expand the celebration of black history across the entire month and, in 1976, the U.S. federal government officially recognized Black History Month, two hundred years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

Is Black History Month Still Necessary?

When we tally the years in our history, it all seems incredibly recent. A mere century and a half after the Emancipation Proclamation—and a half century after the Civil Rights movement—Americans have re-elected our nation’s first black president. By some accounts, we live in a “post-racial society,” where people of all colors have the opportunity to grow, achieve, and prosper. All of which begs the question: Has Carter G. Wilson’s goal come to fruition? Is it time to make Black History Month a thing of the past?

Opinions are split. By perpetuating the celebration of Black History Month, we risk segregating and marginalizing black accomplishments. But by ending it, we risk a history curriculum where those accomplishments become invisible, as they were before.

On our Facebook page, we asked if Black History month was still a relevant way to remember our history, or if we should focus instead on integrating black history into the mainstream American history curriculum.

In response, Eva Rotter-Johnson wrote:

“Integration should be the goal, no doubt. But unfortunately, I do not think we are there yet. So in the mean time, is this ‘reminder’ still necessary? I think so…”

What’s so striking about Eva’s comment is her mention of “there:” a time when black history is considered interchangable with American history. How do we know when we’ve reached that moment? How do we measure our progress toward it?

A Vision for the Future

Questions like these are at the core of the August Wilson Red Door Project’s mission. As we chart a course for changing our city’s racial ecology through community conversations, learning communities, and events like the August Wilson Monologue Competition, we make all possible efforts to stay aware of the impact and outcomes of our work as well as the vision directing it. For us, “there” is the point in time where people of all colors feel comfortable calling Portland home, where a commitment to diversity and equity is evident in all aspects of arts and life.

No, we’re not quite “there” yet—as a city or as a nation—but we continue to learn and evolve through the sometimes difficult dialogue on our racial and cultural identities. Our progress is counted in the numbers of individuals and institutions willing to open the door to healing and transformational conversation about race.

We’re “there” when we all understand the importance of our history, when it’s no longer a question of yours or mine. Let’s celebrate our history, our differences, our questions, and our commitment to get there, together.

What do you think: Is it time to say goodbye to Black History Month, or are we not “there” yet? Share your thoughts below.