Is Black History Month enough? Changemakers discuss its relevance in the midst of racial justice movements

Kamilah Newton
·12 min read
The 2021 version of Black History Month, following a tumultuous 2020, feels different. (Vector illustration/Getty Images)
The 2021 version of Black History Month, following a tumultuous 2020, feels different. (Vector illustration/Getty Images)

February, as it has been for the past 45 years, is Black History Month, bringing the contributions of Black ingenuity and the civil rights movement to classrooms and TV screens across the United States in honor of the birth month of both Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.

But the 2021 version, following a summer of Black Lives Matter protests and the election of the first Black woman elected vice president — amid the ongoing pandemic and its disproportionate effect on Black Americans — feels different.

“We know this will be a Black History Month like no other. We have been through a pandemic, a series of racial justice movements and the resultant protests — violence in our streets and in our nation’s capital,” says Zebulon Miletsky, PhD, a spokesperson for the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH), the organization that pioneered the annual celebration of Black History Month, starting in 1976, after its transition from Negro History Week, begun in 1926 by Harvard graduate and historian Carter G. Woodson.

“So,” Miletsky, also a professor of Black history at Stony Brook University in New York, adds, “Black History Month marks our ability to survive in the midst of all of these things — and the accomplishments and contributions that have made life richer for all Americans. Considering the surge in attacks on Black life — on so many levels — I think we need Black History Month now more than ever.”

He adds that “Woodson [felt] that Black contributions have been singularly important, thus proving the humanity and worthiness of Black life.” It’s a sentiment that’s shared, of course, by a newer organization of a similar name: Black Lives Matter.

Carter G. Woodson is the father of Negro History Week, started in 1926, which transitioned into Black History Month in 1976. (Photo: Getty Images)
Carter G. Woodson is the father of Negro History Week, started in 1926, which transitioned into Black History Month in 1976. (Photo: Getty Images)

ASALH credits the efforts of its current president, Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, PhD, for the way the organization has become more connected to what some have called “a new civil rights movement,” with Miletsky noting: “Mainly we’re a scholarly society. But we really wrapped our arms around more of the social action. … There’s an openness about what the new generation has to say. That’s one of the biggest changes [within the organization] this year. People are really listening, because it’s very clear that our world is changing, transforming before our eyes, and so much of that’s coming from the vision of Black Lives Matter.”

This year, due to COVID-19 restrictions, ASALH is holding its annual Black History Month Festival virtually, with the theme of “The Black Family: Representation, Identity and Diversity,” with a host of events spanning the entire month, including an appearance by the Rev. Bernice King (daughter of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King).

Still, while many likely agree that Black History Month is more important than ever, some are wondering if it’s enough — a question that has been raised by Black thought leaders at various times over the years. In 2012, for example, African American filmmaker Shukree Hassan Tilghman explored the issue in his documentary More Than a Month, for which he went on a “cross-country campaign to end Black History Month.” He explained that “relegating Black History Month to the coldest, shortest month of the year is an insult, and that Black history is not separate from American history,” and he came fully equipped with a petition to cancel its observance.

It didn’t work, of course, although some have been using this month to speak out on social media about how one month is not enough, through hashtags including “28DaysAintEnough,” “MoreThanAMonth” and “365Black.”

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In order to examine this question more closely, Yahoo Life reached out to four Black changemakers who shared their thoughts on Black History Month, its continued relevance and what sets this year’s celebration apart.

Kali N. Gross, PhD

Emory University professor of African American studies

The celebration of Black history should not be limited to the month, but I also think celebrating it in February is just a way to highlight it — like, it could be especially highlighted in February and continue to be emphasized throughout the year. That’s certainly the approach I take.

I think it’s a way to celebrate new scholarship on Black history. It’s this space that allows exciting new works to get featured in ways that they might not otherwise find a platform for. And again, what I find is that once that starts, it runs through the year. Black history is important to celebrate too because it has helped to document strategies that have worked effectively to combat systemic racism in various areas. And I think it also works to dislodge white supremacy by combatting the ignorance associated with that ideology.

Is Black History Month still enough? Thought leaders weighed in, including, clockwise from top left: Ashton P. Woods, Elle Hearns, Azel Prather Jr. and Kali N. Gross. (Courtesy of subjects)
Is Black History Month still enough? Thought leaders weighed in, including, clockwise from top left: Ashton P. Woods, Elle Hearns, Azel Prather Jr. and Kali N. Gross. (Courtesy of subjects)

The kind of grassroots activism that we saw be so successful in places like Georgia has a long history in African American Black women especially, who have mobilized and organized practically since we hit these shores. And that’s not to say that the sisters who were organizing today haven’t modified it and made it even more effective — they’re building on that tradition.

2021 marks … literally the year that Black women saved the American democracy — and quite possibly the world. Kali N. Gross, PhD

[The year] 2020, as unrelentingly cruel and chaotic as it was, it also was really powerful in some key ways. The movement over the summer for Black lives really demonstrated that it’s not just Black people that understand how dangerous white supremacy is. That was really powerful just to witness, even through the heartbreak of how it came to be. The other thing that 2021 marks is literally the year that Black women saved the American democracy — and quite possibly the world.

Ashton P. Woods

Founder of Black Lives Matter Houston

Yeah, I would say [this year is different]. There’s a Black woman who’s the vice president? And after we just got rid of one of the most openly racist presidents ever.

The movement connects to this month because 2020 was a year racial justice actually became a thing. It wasn’t that it was something new, but it got the attention of so many people from so many different walks of life, that people now openly acknowledge that racism exists — all the way down to the new administration … [with] racial equality built into every policy that they make. I think in the reality that we live in now, people actually have to live up to some type of accountability that they might have not been held to before — and not only that, [but] consequences are more swift.

The movement connects to this month because 2020 was a year racial justice actually became a thing. Ashton P. Woods

People are finally coming out of this rose-colored-glasses view of racism as a white man with a hood over his head. A great example of that is right here [just north of Dallas], where the white parents are suing the school district— and they have people on that school board who support them — to not have cultural competency, and to not talk about white privilege in 2021. I think this Black History Month will be more of a representation of us actually being proud to be Black instead of buying into the respectability politics that kind of was like, ‘Oh, you know, that’s just how things are.’ No, it’s not just how things are. This is not OK.

[Going beyond February,] I think that looks like doing the work to recognize racism, colorism and xenophobia — whether you are a Black person and it is internalized, a non-Black person, Latino or white. When you think about how we looked at the immigration crisis that Trump started, for example, you saw babies being separated. People always asked [me], “Why are you from Black Lives Matter Houston supporting these immigrants?” I’m like, well, a lot of those people sitting in those detention centers or taken from their parents are Black. People from places like Jamaica and from Haiti, they’re in on this too. Recognize that this is a global thing, that we need to stop looking at everything through a Westernized white gaze. “Black Lives Matter” is a phrase of a global movement.

Elle Hearns

Founder and executive director of the Marsha P. Johnson Institute

Black History Month, for me, is always a continuation. I am forever and traditionally always reflecting on the contribution of Black people who have achieved things that are widely reported and the achievements of Black people in my community who are surviving and striving for their own definition of greatness. I remember my own journey and my own contribution to the history of my people. And so for me, it’s not just something that I celebrate during the month; it’s something that I celebrate all year long. So much of what we’re seeing [now] is because of the sacrifices and the brilliance of Black people throughout time. It’s certainly a time for remembering, but it’s also a time for action, for us to continue to fight and advocate for the humanity of Black people.

It's so important for us all to be able to place ourselves in history. Elle Hearns

It’s so important for us all to be able to place ourselves in history. Black History Month is not just for the names we often hear — it’s for us too. It’s for our grandparents or our mothers, it’s for our children and for our future children, it’s for us now. I appreciate the dedication for a month, but for me, the history of Black people is something that I have dedicated my life to.

The ongoing movement for Black liberation has consistently upheld the importance of the month because we are reminded of why it exists in the first place — so that we don’t turn a blind eye to the struggle of Black people. … [So] that we’re able to cherish the fact that, as a community, we are still here and we have survived no matter the circumstances our ancestors experienced — that we’re currently experiencing. The movement has given us a space to understand the connection between history and our current-day reality. Without the movement, Black History Month would certainly exist in a vacuum — it would exist in the minds and the hearts of corporations.

Azel Prather Jr.

Teacher and founder of the Prather Foundation

For me, Black History Month is about the past, present and future. I like to enlighten [students] on what we are doing now, and that’s also a part of history — and about things that they can do to make history. Lebron James opened a school, and we have the first Black woman president — that’s history. I like to show them what the people who aren’t in the textbooks are doing in everyday life.

I think not only this month but every other month is about showing the kids the power of Black people and empowering them about their Black skin. Azel Prather Jr.

I think not only this month, but every other month is about showing the kids the power of Black people and empowering them about their Black skin. Teaching the things about them that lets them know that they are kings and queens and that they are of royalty. I think that's important to show them how much they should love who they are, because we're seeing now more than ever how some people are trying to make us think of ourselves. I think it's important for us to celebrate. We show out for any other holiday, but this month is our time to shine. Let's not miss the mark.

There is so much that we need to know about us that we don't know. I think February is the time that we can push it and then use that momentum from February to carry us over into March, and so on. Black history don't just start and stop in February. We're responsible for a lot of different things from the culture now to things that you use every day, so it's something that we need to embrace — embrace that they love it in February — and make them love it in March and April too.

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