Black History Month is for Everyone

by | Feb 26, 2019 | In the News, Race

black history month

Since 1976, the United States has celebrated the month of February as “Black History Month.”  The origins of the celebration date back to “Negro History Week” started by historian Carter G. Woodson in the second week of February 1926. The birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglas on February 12th and 14th spawned the extended holiday of “Negro History Week.” When extending the commemoration to the entire month, President Gerald R. Ford reasoned that “we need to seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of the endeavor through our history.” For me, the key element in today’s celebration is to remember my black ancestors who fought for the freedom they did not themselves enjoy but wanted for future generations. But black history is not just for black people but is a celebration that belongs to all of us. 

It might not seem like everyone is willing to take ownership of Black History Month though. The celebration continues to spark controversy from blacks and non-blacks alike. Some people misunderstand the importance of dedicating a month to a specific group. Others yearn for their own month. On one hand, the son of former slaves, Professor Woodson said, “Black history should be celebrated every day because all history begins with black history. When black history is not taught throughout the year, it is reinforcing anti-blackness.” Some white people see this celebration simply as a way to give power to black people. But, as Jeffery Arron puts it: “For white folks, studying black history would be a kind of vaccination, inoculating them against the disease of race prejudice.” Personally, as a black man, I believe my ancestors, who have deposited their blood, sweat, and tears into the bank of this country, deserve recognition. Lives are priceless, and their lives were dedicated to creating the current economy. I believe that “Black History Month” does not celebrate only black people’s contribution to black culture and black history. It functions as a remembrance, reverence, and recognition of the sacrifices that black people have made for this country, for all of us.

Two years ago, I had the opportunity to visit different historical places in the southern United States. While I was in New Orleans, LA, I felt that I was home. In addition to the food, music, people, and more, the welcoming went beyond my expectation. I went to visit St. Augustine Catholic Church, one of the first black churches in the city and prayed there. During Mass, the priest mentioned in his homily that we were there to remember and honor those who fought to build this church. Our presence is an act of remembrance. This meaningful moment helped me imagine my ancestors arriving in this country with a place to worship. That also allows me to understand that each time I participate in this remembrance, I embrace it as an act of gratitude to them. I took this opportunity to pause, pray, reflect, and pay respects. “Black History Month” is another opportunity to pause and appreciate the sacrifice of my ancestors.

Celebrating this month also helps remind me to become a better steward of my black heritage. In New Orleans, I also had a chance to visit a prominent black Catholic leader in the city. During our conversation, he told me, “Patrick, you have to remember that the commemoration of our ancestors is an act of appreciation of what they give you and a reminder to teach the next generation to remember what our ancestors left behind for us.” His point is important not only for the black community but for all of us. Black History Month provides the opportunity to learn about many historical and cultural richness of the black community, such as the Harlem Renaissance, the Tuskegee Airmen Story and more. Therefore, I see this event as an act of recognition, appreciation, and memory. Without this celebration, many people (including myself) would continue to take the efforts of my ancestors for granted.

Many times, people tend to point out some negative aspect of the black community, without knowing and appreciating their values.  People tend to focus on the negatives concerning the black community. Often, you hear blacks are vagabonds or thieves, but it is less likely to hear someone say that some of the greatest players in the NFL are black. I read about blacks as drug dealers, high school dropouts, and people living in poverty more than I read about blacks as politicians, entrepreneurs, and activists. 

No human being is perfect. People can make mistakes, yet the black community faces harsher judgment. People build their biases based on isolated cases. For example, if one black man commits a crime, then all must be criminals in their minds. This is not fair.  For the black community, the negative often gets more recognition than the positive. But, as a black man, I know that we have a lot of substantial and meaningful elements to be appreciated in our culture: our soul food, our different kinds of dance, our clothing, our artistic talent, our sense of togetherness and more. Black History Month is time to celebrate our richness and gifts.

“Black History Month” is a window that opens to this gigantic richness of black legacy in the US. It is an opportunity to raise public awareness about black history and its influence in today’s reality. This is not just a history of people of color, but of America as a whole. Embracing “Black History Month” helps to unify this nation.

“Black History Month” gives an opportunity to reframe the narrative of black people. It is a time to appreciate Madam C.J. as a great self-made millionaire, Phillis Wheatley, and Maya Angelou who stand as living symbols in our community. This is the month to enjoy the great Beyoncé, Oprah and more. 

Get a chance to lose yourself in exciting Jazz, and then feel the blues, provided by musicians like Miles Davis and Robert Johnson. Get to know more about the culture, because “Black History Month” is yours and mine.


Patrick Saint-Jean, SJ   /   All posts by Patrick