Black History Month: Origin, History and What Can We Learn From It

GLA University - B.Com | LLB | B.A.
GLA University | B.Com | LLB | B.A.

Researched and Written By Gunjan Bahety, Intern at Lawctopus and a fourth-year law student at Maharashtra National Law University, Nagpur. Some parts of the article are written by Sonali Chugh.

Audre lorde, ‘Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet’. Image from Penguin Classics.

 

“We come together as voices, as figures, as persons who are willing to live and to die for that quest for truth, beauty, goodness, and justice.”

-Cornel West

Black History Month is observed annually in February to mark the achievements of the African American community by honouring their history. Against the backdrop of the killing of African American Hip Hop artist George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement last year, Black History Month this year has become all the more significant.

How Did Black History Month Take Form?

In 1926, the American historian Carter Godwin Woodson, also known as the ‘father of Black History’, marked the second week of February as ‘Negro History Week’, a precursor to the Black History Month. The particular week was also chosen because it shared the birthdays of Former U.S. President Abraham Lincoln and U.S. reformist Fredrick Douglass.[i] Both of whom worked towards the abolition of slavery in America.

Besides being a historian, Carter G. Woodson was also a distinguished black author, editor and publisher who believed that the ‘Negros’ should study and understand their past to participate in the affairs of their country.[ii] Woodson’s understanding of the subordination of the African American community stems from being born to former slaves. From reading newspapers to illiterate mine workers to becoming the second African-American to receive a PhD from Harvard University,[iii] his life and legacy are still being remembered through his work.

In 1916, Woodson wrote ‘The Journal of Negro History’ in which he talked about Black People’s success to spread to a wider audience. He encouraged his fraternity to promote their work which then created the ‘Negro Achievement Week’.[iv] However, to have a bigger impact, Woodson through a press release, announced February’s second week as ‘Nigro History Week’.

In the following years, clubs, care homes, museums, schools, organizations, communities, started taking part in the week-long celebrations which were gradually declared official by cities in the US.

By 1960, the week-long celebration became a month long. In the period of the civil rights movement, schools included Black history into their curriculum to advance mechanisms within the social structure and often substituted US history with Black History.[v]

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Thereafter, Former U.S. President Gerald Ford officially issued a Black History Month, becoming the first president to do so and the rest followed suit.

Black History Month Around the World

Apart from the United States, Black History Month has received official recognition by the United Kingdom as well as some European nations. In October 1987, the United Kingdom celebrated its first Black History Month. The Department for Education, UK stated that black history is an important part of history and that the schools have the freedom to teach it within the curriculum. The Government provides additional funding to organisations for observing Black History Month, some of these include, the Windrush Foundations, 100 Great Black Britons, etc.[vi]

To mark the African Jubilee Year, it was celebrated for the first time in 1987 in London. On October 1, 1987, Dr Maulana Karenga (US) was called to the event in County Hall to mark the contributions of the Black community throughout history.

The Founder of Ontario Black History Society (OBHS), Dr Daniel G. Hill and Wilson O. Brooks had sent a petition to the City of Toronto to formally declare the month of February as the ‘Month of Black History’.

Thereafter, OBHS President Rosemary Sadlier (OBHS President) proposed the concept to the Honourable Jean Augustine, the first Black Canadian woman elected to the Parliament, to have Black History Month celebrated throughout Canada.[vii] To know more about Black History Month celebrations around the world.

Too Much Commercialisation?

Despite how it started, for a few years now, the deplorable commercialisation of Black History Month has been receiving criticism from across the Black Community. This has also brought to fore the issues of appropriation that whitewashes years of trauma and struggles lived by the black community. Many from the black community have repeatedly condemned corporations for misusing the month as a marketing gimmick to further financial gains.[viii]

In an interview with the Time magazine Professor Burnis R. Morris, author of the ‘Carter G. Woodson: History, The Black Press, and Public Relations’ enunciated on the same lines. He said,

“Woodson railed against people taking advantage of Negro History Week (Fishel, n.d.), who used it to sell items and make money. John Hope Franklin, probably the most respected African American historian since Woodson, who was mentored by Woodson — said he did not accept speaking engagements during Black History Month because it was overly commercialized.”

The spirit of the month was to bring visibility to the achievements and contributions of the Black Community, most of which had gone unaccounted for. The fact of tracing and maintaining records of a community that was otherwise ousted by the state made Black History Month especially important. While it is still of utmost importance, certain achievements by the black community are sold as a marker of history by selling their achievements and positioning their ‘blackness’ as a commodity.

How Does Black History Month Affect Us? Why Are We Talking About It?

Even though several authors have tried to track similarities between racial segregation and caste discrimination.[ix] This section of the article neither claims any similarity between the two forms of discrimination nor does it aim to bring in any connection between the two systems. The arguments herein are directed to a moral nexus between the two; the shared experience of violence and suffering.

To understand the relevance of Black History Month is to also realise how placing the Dalit Movement outside the confines of the Indian scenario could very well translate into a global struggle. Thus, providing more attention to the voices of Dalit activists who have been struggling to battle subjugations from within the State.

Martin Luther King Jr. when arrived in India in the winter of 1959, visited a school wherein the Principal introduced him to the students as the ‘untouchable from the United States of America’.[x] Though taken aback, he empathized with every ‘Negro’ from America as an ‘untouchable’ and counted himself one amongst them. He stood up against systemic racism that seeped from within the United State, especially since the US claimed itself to be the land of the free.

The reduction of the very bodies in the United States and India, while do not follow a similar timeline in terms of discrimination, both these countries like many others have shared a distinct past of invisibilisation. The latter more than the former. Neither the race nor the caste is homogenous in the way that they are used, despite their differences they have been subjected to subjugation which can’t be compared.

It is this understanding that brings us too to the moral connection that we must realize and try to become an ally in the change that has been long due. Both W.E.B Du Bois and Dr B.R. Ambedkar shared solidarity towards the people who were outcast, reflecting on the way they suffered.[xi]

The vision for a better future requires courage and spiritual greatness.[xii] To reach out for a better world would mean to recognise our privilege. It is required for us to understand the forms of disparities that exist beyond us, because of us and despite us and every day are deepened by the State. The disparity in form of race, caste, colour, gender is all grievous and inhumane and have destructive consequences.

All we can do is to denounce any kind of ideology that brings down the richness in humanity[xiii] and ingrain us with the phobia of the ‘other’. It’s to denounce our inner insecurity and criticize the call for purity.

In fact, Ambedkar wrote to Du Bois that there is a similarity between the two to which Du Bois responded with sympathy for the ‘untouchables’ of India.[xiv] Regardless of any intellectual or actual similarity between race and caste, the relevancy of their connection is not only necessary but also appropriate on the grounds discussed above.

Though it is equally essential for us to realize that caste and race even though not synonymous are not mutually exclusive. 

Caste is the infrastructure that binds a group to a set place while the race is what we can see in the form of physical traits.[xv] The visible markers for invisibilization are much different in India as compared to the systemic racism in the U.S.

India has avoided international uproar or intervention in matters of gruesome caste atrocities. Although many Indians positioned themselves as an advocate of the Black Lives Matter movement, the same voices reverberate silence when Dalits and tribal are subjected to similar gruesome attacks. Last year on Ambedkar Jayanti, Dalit activist and academic Anand Teltumbde (65) had to surrender after his plea for anticipatory bail was dismissed under the Unlawful (Activities) Prevention Act (UAPA) for inciting violence at Bhima Koregaon in 2018.[xvi]

In January this year, a member of Mazdoor Adhikar Sangathan (MAS) and Dalit activist Nodeep Kaur (23) was arrested from the Farmer’s protest site at the Singhu Border. Kaur was charged with extortion, attempt to murder, trespassing, criminal intimidation and rioting, among others. Four days after her arrest, the president of the same organisation (MAS), activist and poet Shiv Kumar was arrested and charged as a co-conspirator with Kaur. Both the accused reported police torture following their arrests. In the case of Kumar, his medical reports have revealed harrowing details which assert this claim. According to the report Kumar has received multiple injuries including two major fractures and is showing symptoms of anxiety and ‘flashbacks of brutality meted out to him’.[xvii]

Even though we tend towards a ‘progressive stand’ by speaking of emancipation in the context of caste-based othering and violence. Dalits residing in rural areas, in the words of Prof. Anand Teltumbde[xviii],

“still carry human excreta on their heads as their caste vocation and die in their thousands of asphyxiation in the city sewer.”

Thus, this month is especially important to look within and witness our own hypocrisy.  It is to remember that we can learn to listen to contemporary and historical Dalit voices too. Not only by observing ‘Dalit History Month’ in April but by reading and understanding the Dalit texts and their histories regularly. We need to include Dalit Protagonists and their stories within curriculums. Such that these narratives are not dictated by an upper-caste voice which often imagines them in a certain way by shrugging off their accomplishments. It is imperative to recognise their struggles instead of appropriating or victimising the Dalit body and experience. The same goes for the black community all over the world.

This year’s theme for Black History Month is “Black Family: Representation, Identity and Diversity”. To learn about the important Black History Milestones Timeline, please visit the link here.

Endnotes

[i] ASALH, https://asalh.org/about-us/origins-of-black-history-month/ (last visited Feb 24th 2021).

[ii] NAACP, https://www.naacp.org/naacp-history-carter-g-woodson/  (last visited Feb 24th 2021).

[iii] Olivia B. Waxman, What the Father of Black History Would Have Actually wanted Americans to do for Black History Month, Time, (Feb 24th, 2021 5:06 PM) https://time.com/5513378/black-history-month-founder-inventor/.

[iv] McKenzie Jean philippe, The Reason Black History Month is in February, The Oprah Magazine, (Feb 24th, 2021 5:08 PM) https://www.oprahmag.com/life/a26077992/why-is-black-history-month-in-february/.

[v] Id.

[vi] Adina Campbell, Black history Month: What is it and Why Does it Matter, BBC News (Feb 24th 2021, 5:16 PM) https://www.bbc.com/news/explainers-54522248.

[vii] Government of Canada https://www.canada.ca/en/canadian-heritage/campaigns/black-history-month/about.html (last visited Feb 24th, 2021).

[viii] Fishel, D. (n.d.). I don’t need or want corporations celebrating Black History Month. The Washington Post.https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2021/02/05/black-history-month-corporations-pandering-racial-justice/?arc404=true

[ix] Rajesh Sampath, Racial and Caste Oppression Have Many Similarities, The Conversation (Feb 24th 2021, 5:19 PM) https://theconversation.com/racial-and-caste-oppression-have-many-similarities-37710.

[x] Isabel Wilkerson, America’s “Untouchables”: The Silent Power of the Caste System, The Guardian, (Feb 24th 2021, 5:21 PM) https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jul/28/untouchables-caste-system-us-race-martin-luther-king-india

[xi] Sunil Menon, The Global Dalit, The Indian Black: Cornel west in Conversation with Suraj Yengde, Outlook, (Feb 24th 2021, 5:23 PM) https://magazine.outlookindia.com/story/india-news-independence-day-special-whos-indias-george-floyd-heres-exposing-a-racist-india/303552

[xii] Id.

[xiii] Id.

[xiv] Id.

[xv] Isabel Wilkerson, America’s “Untouchables”: The Silent Power of the Caste System, The Guardian, (Feb 24th 2021, 5:21 PM) https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jul/28/untouchables-caste-system-us-race-martin-luther-king-india

[xvi] Ravi, N. (December 10, 2020). Why were Activists Like Anand Teltumbde Who Work For the Disadvantaged Jailed? The Leaflet. https://www.theleaflet.in/why-were-activists-like-anand-teltumbde-who-work-for-the-disadvantaged-jailed/#

[xvii] Sandhu, J. S. (Feb 25, 2021). Co-accused in Nodeep Kaur case has multiple injuries: Medical report. The Indian Express https://indianexpress.com/article/india/co-accused-in-nodeep-kaur-case-has-multiple-injuries-medical-report-7203511/

[xviii] Teltumbde, A. (January 1, 2018). Thinking Equality in the Time of Neoliberal Hindutva. In Republic of Caste: Thinking Equality in the Time of Neoliberal (p. 37). Navayana.

 

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