Here's What the Black History Month Colors Are and What They Mean
Every February, we celebrate the culture and contributions of Black people in America by attending parties and parades, shopping from Black-owned brands, and learning about Black stories through books movies, and documentaries. Since the 1600s, Black Americans have inspired several generations after undergoing tumultuous journeys and wrongfully facing injustice and racism. It's important to educate ourselves and understand the complex history of Black Americans year-round, but especially during Black History Month, when we honor their legacy as a nation.
"The idea is that Black History Month sets the tone for the entire year and that Black History must be reflected in the American curriculum across the country beyond the month of February and throughout the entire year," says Tyler D. Parry, Historian, and Professor of African American and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Nevada Las Vegas.
Parry, alongside Anne Bailey, Professor of History at Binghamton University and the State University of New York, shared with us the meaning behind the origins of Black History Month, as well as its colors, themes, and ways to celebrate. Ahead, we break down the significance of the Black History Month colors and what they mean regarding Black history in America.
When was Black History Month first celebrated?
Before the U.S. officially celebrated Black History Month for the first time in February 1976, it was recognized as "Negro History Week" in 1926. According to Parry, "Negro History Week" began through the Association for the Study of African American History and Life, founded by scholar, teacher, and activist Carter G. Woodson in 1915.
Woodson selected the week in February because African Americans were already holding commemorative events that recognized the 16th U.S. president, Abraham Lincoln, and American abolitionist Frederick Douglass in celebration of their birthdays. "February made sense for integrating the celebration of Black history and heritage in the same month," Parry says. "Woodson also believed the week would serve a higher purpose in showcasing the deep and rich history of Black people in the United States and elsewhere."
Per Parry, Negro History Week started during a time when Black history was being "misrepresented and demoralized" by white scholars who promoted ideas like the Lost Cause or the Plantation Myth, which were both sympathetic to the history and memory of the slaveholding Confederacy.
"Though he recognized that certain people made significant contributions throughout history, Woodson believed that history did not revolve around 'Great Men,' but that it was most important to tell the history of a people that was for the people, especially the youth," Parry explains. "Negro History Week, and later Black History Month, provided, and still provides, a counterpoint to the narratives that either ignore the contributions of Black Americans or misrepresent the history."
What do the Black History Month colors mean and what are their origins?
When you see posters and graphics related to Black History Month, chances are you'll see them designed with the same four colors: red, black, green, and gold. These colors are also reflected in the Pan-African flag (black, red, and green) and the Ethiopian flag (green, gold, and red), which both have uplifting backgrounds that highlight the resilience of the Black community throughout history.
"Ethiopia was an important symbol for African Americans (and others throughout the diaspora) throughout the early twentieth century as it was the only African country free of colonial domination, representing a free and independent African republic," Parry says. "The yellow [or gold] refers back to the Ethiopian flag, which is meaningful to people of color because Ethiopia is virtually the only country in Africa that did not experience colonialism. Thus, it has been largely independent throughout its history. "
Bailey further explains that the Black History Month colors also come from the ideology of Jamaican activist Marcus Garvey, who "was active during the period of the first Black History commemoration in the 1920s."
Per a pamphlet of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (U.N.I.A), Garvey wrote that "Red is the color of the blood which men must shed for their redemption and liberty; black is the color of the noble and distinguished race to which we belong; green is the color of the luxuriant vegetation of our Motherland."
How are the Black History Month colors incorporated into how people celebrate?
Parry says that incorporating the colors in Black History Month celebration varies depending on the location, but that they're often the most displayed colors in most events, "reflecting a symbol of resilience and heritage attached to Black History in the United States and abroad."
Whether you participate in readings of Black literature at your local library, attend shows put on by Black performers, or speak to Black leaders about the impact of their culture, Parry notes that there are plenty of ways to "ensure that the voices of the Black past are being represented and elevated throughout the month of February."
Are there themes for Black History Month every year?
Yes! The Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH)'s has chosen a theme for Black History Month every year since 1928, per their official website. According to Parry, the themes are "designed to highlight the contributions of Black people and celebrate the resilience of the community as a whole, while simultaneously noting what still needs to be done."
What is the theme for Black History Month 2023?
As noted by ASALH's official website, the theme for Black History Month 2023 is Black Resistance, which emphasizes the "ongoing oppression" of Black people throughout American history. This year's theme shows how "Black resistance strategies have served as a model for every other social movement in the country, thus, the legacy and importance of these actions cannot be understated."
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