Growing up in the 1970s, Black History Month was most often a project of recovery and redress: “recovering” subjugated stories of black achievement in order to redress their omission from dominant historical narratives – a project that remains important. Carter G. Woodson, founder of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, began “Negro History Week” in 1926 because Americans widely believed that black people had no history worth honoring. In 1976, President Gerald Ford declared that “Black History Month” provided an “opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans.” In each case, the impulse to recognize the contributions of black people reflected confidence in the power of historical narratives to influence contemporary attitudes about race and racism. The expansion, from one week among some African Americans to a full month recognized by the nation, fit well with the racial progress narrative of the years immediately following the 1960s Civil Rights Movement.
I recall how certain my grandparents and great aunts and uncles were that being smart and working hard would create opportunities for me that they had never known. Although I was too young to fully understand, I remember hearing my grandmother on the telephone with family and friends from church who lived nearby, planning when they were going to vote and figuring out if they could go together. It was hard to imagine then that voters of color would again face attempts to purge them from rolls, limit their access to polling places, or to fail to count their ballots once cast. Nevertheless, those who oppose racial equality have worked relentlessly to undermine the pro-democratic victories of the Civil Right era: voting rights, equal opportunity in education, housing and employment.
Today, Black History Month is an invitation to remember the brave people who stood on the right side of justice despite terror, danger and death. It is an invitation to face with confidence the tragedies and trials that break our hearts, to be fearless in hope and unyielding in our fight for justice — for all of us.
Since 1976, the United States has designated February as Black History Month to honor the often overlooked achievements of black Americans throughout the country’s history. Demos is honoring Black History Month by highlighting reflections from some of our staff. We welcome you to join the conversation by sharing your thoughts with us on social media using #blackhistorymonth.