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Diversity lotto #1: why is February Black History Month?

Feb. 7, 2018
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I never know how to introduce myself other than with a lame, simple, boring hello, so: hello, everyone, this is Anna! I will be your new columnist reporting on issues regarding diversity and representation everywhere—in media, education, workplaces, homes. This is such a broad topic with so many subcategories, and I will try my best to address them all.

Diversity is one of those words that have been thrown around in so many contexts that it seems the significance of the word has been diminished due to its ubiquity. To the best of my abilities, I want to bring that word back into its place of honor and explore the nuance and the implication of what diversity means in our contemporary society. Looking back 50 years on America's past, the palpable and visible changes we've made are impossible to ignore. Yet in this age of progress, unprecedented problems have arisen: There are white supremacists targeting churches primarily attended by African Americans. The President of the United States called Mexicans “rapists” in his presidential announcement speech and called African nations “shitholes” mere weeks ago—and this country elected that guy to be the leader of the free world! Women of all industries are paid less than their male counterparts for doing the exact same thing. There are so many more stories of the silenced, marginalized, and unreported. And I can’t promise to report all those stories, but I’m going to use my voice to uplift as many of those voiceless and hidden figures in our history and in our world as possible. 

I can’t change the fact that I’m born Korean. My friend can’t change the fact that she likes both boys and girls. My student can’t change the fact that he has Down syndrome. We can’t change the fundamental core that makes us us—and we shouldn’t feel the need to—but we definitely can challenge the biased perceptions others have of us.  And that’s why I’m getting my typewriter out—just my laptop, actually, but a girl can dream, right?—to tackle this invisible yet very present problem. 

So the very first month of my column will be dedicated to honoring and celebrating Black history—not only because it’s February, but also because of the incredible, often-ignored stories of so many Black Americans. Regardless of your political party or beliefs, it’s indisputable that what African Americans have suffered at the hands of white Americans is painful, sickening, and inhuman. Black Americans, along with other immigrant groups, built America—and despite long periods of collective abuse and discrimination that continue even to this day, black artists, authors, politicians, engineers are still forging and furthering the richness of American culture. And since we live in such a beautiful and diverse world, a Korean American girl gets to pay a minuscule tribute to a slice of Black Americans’ history via the internet. 

February is a lot of things: that awkward liminal state between winter and spring, the season of valentines and Kisses (the Hershey's kind, of course), home to the occasional Leap Day. But most of all, February is Black History Month, and in order to properly celebrate Black American culture and history, we ought to know why and how February came to be the official month for this celebration. 

According to Time Magazine, Carter G. Woodson, who received his PhD from Harvard and his Masters from the University of Chicago, noticed a flagrant absence of the contributions of African Americans from early 20th-century textbooks and lectures. The underrepresentation of Blacks in the narrative of this country’s history was the catalyst that inspired him to found the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (now the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, a.k.a. ASALH) alongside Jesse E. Moorland in 1915. “If a race has no history, it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated,” Woodson said.

In 1926, as part of the organization’s purpose to celebrate the achievements and contribution of Black Americans, ASALH introduced “Negro History Week” in the second week of February, as that week included both Frederick Douglass’ birthday on February 14 and Abraham Lincoln’s birthday on February 12. This also raised awareness of Black history in schools, prompting teachers to educate youth about the truth of American history by highlighting African Americans’ history and presence.

During the civil rights movement in the '50s, Freedom School spread the message of the “Negro History Week” throughout the South. In the '60s, even though forty years had passed since Woodson started the movement, the most popular textbook for eight-grade U.S. history classes mentioned only two Black people in the entire century of history that had transpired since the Civil War. When this staggering state of underrepresentation was revealed, college campuses throughout the nation expanded that second week of February to Black History Month.

Although many mayors of cities have declared this to be official month to celebrate Black culture, it wasn’t until 1976 that President Gerald Ford declared that February be nationally observed as Black History Month. 

It took nearly 60 years from the inception of ASALH for President Ford to officially recognize February as the Black History Month. Despite this, the story of how February became Black History Month comes with a crucial lesson: Woodson’s perseverance and ambition to be seen and recognized resonates with so many Black individuals who have come after him. His mission was incited long before his birth, and his legacy continues to carry on long after his death.