Honoring Black History Starts With Knowing Black History; Here’s How To Begin (2024)

February has been set aside as Black History month, a practice that began officially in 1976 when President Gerald Ford declared February as Black History month, “urging the public to ‘seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.’” But its origins date much further back to 1926 when noted historian Carter G. Woodsen, the Harvard-trained historian, and the prominent minister Jesse E. Moorland founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH), an organization dedicated to researching and promoting achievements by Black Americans and other people of African descent, set aside a week in February to honor Black history.

As two white men actively involved in racial justice work and trying to learn what it means to be antiracist, we wanted to see how tainted our current understanding of Black history was, and what we needed to learn to be better informed.

To be sure, there is no shortage of conflicting narratives available to misinform perspectives on this topic. Everything from disinformation about Critical Race Theory – what it is, what it means, and what it’s not, to those attempting to hijack the month’s focus for political or economic gain. For example, you have leaders like Virginia’s governor Glenn Youngkin issuing an executive order to ban Critical Race Theory from places it never existed while simultaneously declaring, “We must equip our teachers to teach our students the entirety of our history – both good and bad. From the horrors of American slavery and segregation, and our country’s treatment of Native Americans…” with no tangible plans to measure whether or not such education is actually happening. Then there’s numerous examples of organizations who promised to stand for racial equity in the tragic wake of George Floyd’s murder, but whose actions since haven’t yielded much. Many organizations are hosting lunches, lectures, and events this month to celebrate some version of Black history, and honor the experience of Black people in America. But those events sometimes prove little more than tokenistic when you view them against the backdrop of the volume of information kept from mainstream conversations about actual Black history. Journalist Nathalie Baptiste offers a proactive suggestion: Cancel Black history month. She suggests,

“Black History month is increasingly being co-opted by the people who have yet to trade in their whistles for bullhorns. It has been commercialized, whitewashed and hijacked — so let’s put an end to this version of it. If, as Dr. Cornel West coined it, Martin Luther King Jr. has been ‘Santa Claus-ified,’ then Black History Month has become Christmas… Actual Black history is more important than ever, but the way it’s been commodified has turned it into a veil…to pontificate about Blackness in a way that does more harm than good. Every February, they can regurgitate the same whitewashed stories of Black people, and in turn, it’s easier to spend the other 11 months being racist and excusing it with the fact that they “honor” Rosa Parks once a year.”

While her observations aren’t wrong, we worry about throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. Since we’ve set aside the month for a noble purpose, let’s actually elevate what we do, individually and collectively, to live up to that purpose.

We spoke with Dr. Zoe Spencer, an Emmy award winning writer, author, activist professor of sociology at Virginia State University and CEO of Diverse Relations Group LLC. Most importantly, she is a Black mother, grandmother, and freedom fighter. Given her depth of expertise in this area, we wanted to hear her views on how to reclaim Black History month to live up to its true intended purpose. She says,


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“The biggest challenge with Black History month is that it perpetuates the myth that Black history began with enslavement in the United States. That's Black American history. But that is an erasure of Black history. It allows Europeans and Americans to recreate the narrative of what Africa was before colonialism and imperialism. It erases the contributions of great African civilizations, universities like Timbuktu, the existence of great African leaders like Mansa Musa, Hatshepsut, and others. We need to keep reminding people that slave traders didn’t steal slaves from Africa. They stole doctors, teachers, scientists, writers, artists, kings, queens, philosophers, parents, and children. Their brilliance was hidden behind distorted images and narratives that Africans were savages and subhuman. And those narratives continue today.”

If you want to participate in Black History month in a way that enriches your knowledge, widens your perspective, and advances the cause for which Black history month was established in the first place, here are some things you can do.

Test Your Assumptions About Black History

Dr. Spencer encourages people to be curious, brave, and test their assumptions about Black history. You can start by asking yourself:

1. What biases do I carry about Black history? Does my version of Black history begin with enslavement? What did my upbringing and education teach me?

2. Do I believe that African slaves couldn’t read or write?

3. Was I led to believe that racism ended after Martin Luther King gave his “I have dream Speech”?

Take time to examine what you learned and how it may have shaped the assumptions you have today.

Here’s an experiment: Take out a piece of paper and make two columns. In Column A, write down the names of all the key Black figures you learned about in school. Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, etc. What were you taught about their role in history? In Column B, write down the names of the white people you learned about in school. Christopher Columbus, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, John Kennedy, and what they were known for. Now reflect on a few questions about the two lists.

Reflection Questions:

1. If you were to put dates next to the people you learned about in history, what assumptions might you develop about when Black history and white history began? (e.g. Martin Luther King 1960s, Christopher Columbus 1492)

2. If you look at the roles people played in history, what assumptions might you develop about white people and people of color? (White people discovered, founded, freed, and protected your country, Black people fought for rights and equality.)

3. Imagine for a second that everyone in column B was Black and everyone in Column A was white. How do you think that would shape your identity? How would that alter your education and upbringing?

Be Brave Enough to Challenge Your Version of History

The history that is taught in schools and presented in the media is a small part of the story. And if you want to be informed, you must be willing to hear the part of the story that may be hard to digest. As Dr. Spencer shares, “If you are living in ignorance, it may make you feel better to believe the fallacies of white supremacy, but you're still ignorant, nonetheless. To be able to learn the real history and situate yourself within that truth gives power. Don’t be afraid to unlearn.”

It can be challenging to learn a version of history that contradicts the one you were taught. Cognitive dissonance is the psychological stress one feels when two ideas are not psychologically consistent with each other. As you start learning, notice if your mind wants to scroll away, change the channel, or turn off the podcast when you hear something that makes you uncomfortable. Dr. Spencer shares, “Learning the truth about Black history isn't designed to make white people feel guilty. Because what value is there in guilt? If you read or hear something that makes you uncomfortable, you have two choices. You can engage it with guilt, which allows you to shut down, or you can choose bravery, which allows you to understand it and realize, “Yes, that was hard, but now I know more than I knew before, and that makes me a better person.” Challenge the privilege of being able to ignore something when it makes you uncomfortable and, instead, be brave and say, “How fascinating, I didn’t know this,” and keep expanding your awareness.

Of the many things we learned, one of the most surprising was the extent to which brilliant Black innovators were denied credit and patents for their inventions, and even more astonishing was the degree to which Black innovators had credit stolen for everyday breakthroughs that today make our lives easier. Everything from home security systems, to refrigerated trucks to elevator doors were created by, but not credited to, Black inventors. Even Eli Whitney’s 1794 patent for the cotton gin had its origins in slave workers who created a comb-like device to separate cotton seeds, from which Whitney was said to have “borrowed” the idea.

Honor Black History month by learning more. There is a treasure trove of resources available to begin your journey. The podcast Seeing White is a profoundly rich series of conversations that certainly opened up both of our eyes, as is the podcast series from The New York Times, 1619. Further, a newly released documentary, Who We Are, now in theaters, is a powerful call to action for all of us. Ibram Kendi’s bestselling “How to be an Antiracist” provides insightful guidance for those wanting to learn how to effectively advocate for people of color

Examine How the Media Shapes Your Narrative

When you turn on the TV, watch a movie, or passively scroll through social media, pay attention to how what you see shapes your narrative about race. Dr. Spencer offers a challenge. “Turn on the TV or scroll through the news and see at any given time how many Black faces you see in mainstream media. Imagine the psychological impact that has on both people of color and white people. What message does that send about the relevance of your being? Think about the subtle ways that white supremacy is reinforced through representation of what is or isn’t normative.”


Take five minutes right now and scroll through a couple of your go-to news sources and social platforms. How many people of color do you see? How many white people do you see? What stories or products are they associated with? Think for a minute how what you see each day shapes your narrative.

Challenge Unfounded Narratives when you Hear Them

As you learn more about history, you may start to notice more of the unfounded narratives appearing in conversations and social media posts of those around you. Respectfully challenge them. This doesn’t mean getting into a debate or harshly criticizing others, but by simply asking “What is that based on?” “What do you think you were taught that makes you believe this?”, you can interrupt that narrative with new information. If the person is receptive, share what you have been learning and help them expand their perspective.

Black History month doesn’t need to remain tokenistic while continuing to mask truths, sometimes hard truths, about actual Black history. It can be a meaningful, honorable, and transformative experience for all of us if we are courageous, humble, and honest enough to double-click on the superficial, stereotypical puffery and discover the wealth of knowledge lying beneath them. Racism is steeped in ignorance. One antidote to ignorance is knowledge and the accompanying humility to concede we might have been misinformed. As Dr. Spencer challenged us, “If our shared histories were interwoven into our daily lived experiences through education, media, politics, and economics, we wouldn't need a Black History month. So, what if Black History month, instead of benefitting the power structure and reinforcing the dominant narratives of Black inferiority, expanded our knowledge of and respect for Black contributions to world civilization? What if we saw it as one story of the human race, instead of a separate story we have to call out once a year?”

That would indeed be a true Black History month. And it’s up to us White folks to go first.

Insights, advice, suggestions, feedback and comments from experts

Black History Month Origins and Purpose

Black History Month officially began in 1976 when President Gerald Ford declared February as Black History Month, urging the public to honor the accomplishments of Black Americans throughout history [[1]]. However, its origins date back to 1926 when historian Carter G. Woodson and minister Jesse E. Moorland founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH) and set aside a week in February to honor Black history [[1]].

Criticisms and Challenges

Black History Month has faced criticisms and challenges over the years. Some argue that it perpetuates the myth that Black history began with enslavement in the United States, erasing the contributions of great African civilizations and leaders [[1]]. Others claim that it has been commercialized, whitewashed, and co-opted, leading to tokenistic celebrations and a failure to address systemic racism throughout the year [[1]].

Reclaiming Black History Month

To reclaim the true intended purpose of Black History Month, individuals can take several steps:

  1. Test Your Assumptions About Black History: Examine your biases and assumptions about Black history. Reflect on what you were taught in school and how it may have shaped your perspective [[1]].
  2. Challenge Your Version of History: Be brave enough to challenge the version of history that is taught in schools and presented in the media. Be willing to learn the real history, even if it contradicts what you were taught [[1]].
  3. Examine How the Media Shapes Your Narrative: Pay attention to how the media shapes your narrative about race. Consider the representation of people of color and white people in mainstream media and the subtle ways that white supremacy is reinforced [[1]].
  4. Challenge Unfounded Narratives: Respectfully challenge unfounded narratives about race when you hear them. Ask questions to encourage critical thinking and share the knowledge you have gained [[1]].

Resources for Learning

There are numerous resources available to deepen your understanding of Black history. Some recommendations include:

  • Podcasts: "Seeing White" and "1619" from The New York Times [[1]].
  • Documentary: "Who We Are" [[1]].
  • Book: "How to Be an Antiracist" by Ibram Kendi [[1]].

By engaging in these actions and seeking out educational resources, individuals can make Black History Month a meaningful and transformative experience that expands knowledge and respect for Black contributions to world civilization [[1]].

Honoring Black History Starts With Knowing Black History; Here’s How To Begin (2024)


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