Looking back at the month of February, I want to pay tribute to what has been a particularly impactful Black History Month for me.
What Is Black History Month?
I started off by doing a bit of research on the background of Black History Month. The creation of Black History Month began farther back in time than I expected, and was originally called Negro History Week.
According to Wikipedia: “The precursor to Black History Month was created in 1926 in the United States, when historian Carter G. Woodson and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History announced the second week of February to be Negro History Week.” This week was chosen because it coincided with the birthday of Abraham Lincoln on February 12 and of Frederick Douglass on February 14, both of which dates Black communities had celebrated together since the late 19th century. From the event’s initial phase, primary emphasis was placed on encouraging the coordinated teaching of the history of African Americans in the nation’s public schools.
The expansion of Black History Week to Black History Month was first proposed by the leaders of the Black United Students at Kent State University in February 1969. The first celebration of the Black History Month took place at Kent State one year later, in February 1970. In 1976 as part of the United States Bicentennial, the informal expansion of Negro History Week to Black History Month was officially recognized by the U.S. government. President Gerald Ford spoke in regards to this, urging Americans to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”
Black History Month wasn’t a big part of my life growing up, since I lived most of my childhood in Kazakhstan in Central Asia. I knew of racism, and had read books on the history of my home country of America, but racism there seemed more like a far off, historical concept than an actual part of my life. When I started Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry as a child, I found myself quickly growing bored and almost immediately dropped it. When I picked up Roll of Thunder this time, I came to it as an adult who had spent almost 6 years in the States, and the story struck a chord deep within me.
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry is the story of the Logans, an African American family living in rural Mississippi during the Great Depression. Cassie Logan, a fourth grader at Great Faith Elementary school, is our narrator, and from the very beginning we are shown that the racism her community experiences runs the gamut. We see the Logan children and their friends being sprayed with muddy water as the racist school driver of the white children’s bus purposely veers toward them. We also hear of three black men being burned alive by the white men who run the neighborhood store. Roll of Thunder shows how real and ever-present the effects of racism are in the Logans’ lives, and leads the reader to ponder the everyday racism that African Americans still experience throughout the States.
Through putting the narration into a child’s hands, the author Mildred D. Taylor makes it clear that racism is not something inherent or intuitive – it is taught. For the first few chapters, Cassie Logan does not even understand why such horrible things are being done to the people around her. She realizes the unfairness of it all and can’t point to any reason why these things are happening. Racism makes no sense to her, and even when her mother tries to explain why many of the white people around them feel that they are superior to black people, Cassie is still understandably confused.
Taylor does an excellent job of showing that the effects of racism stem not only from particularly bigoted individuals, but also from the entire economical, judicial and social system. The Logans own their land, giving them some form of power, but all of their neighbors are sharecroppers, making barely enough to get by and giving a large portion of their harvest to Mr. Granger, the richest landowner in the county. They have no way to save up money to improve their lives and are powerless to even choose where they shop, depending on Mr. Granger’s credit to get the supplies they need. I cannot even imagine how terrifying it would be to walk into that shop knowing that the owners had burned your neighbor to death without any consequences and that they could do the same to you if they felt the inclination.
Racism does not simply hamper these characters’ activities; it puts their very lives in danger. Even if a black man were to do nothing wrong, if a rumor were to spread about him or a couple of whites’ eyes turn his way as they grumble about their own hard lives, he could be captured and lynched in an act of “mob justice”. Afterward, everything would go on for the whites as if nothing had happened, but the man’s family would be totally and irreparably damaged.
The most terrifying thing is that when I look around at contemporary America, I realize that many of these dangers are still real and ever-present for black men today. A black man can still be pulled aside and patted down an any time because the very color of his skin makes him “suspicious”. If things go wrong and escalate out of control, the man could be killed. Events over the last few years, like what happened in Ferguson, MO, tell us that our justice system is still not where it should be when it comes to defending African Americans and their rights.
13th – Amendments and Mass Incarceration
This Black History Month I’ve learned a great deal and am beginning to understand more about racial inequality in America than I ever have before. Just as the government system was set up for the Logans and their neighbors to fail, there is still systemic bias against African Americans today. This last Sunday, I went to Culture Honey’s showing of 13th, a Netflix documentary which chronicles the failures and wrongdoings of the American government in regard to its African American citizens. The extent to which black people have been targeted and criminalized throughout America’s history is horrendous, and the film leads you to realize that racism and its effects are not something relegated to the past. Racism and its historic effects are still present in new forms today. The words that stuck with me the most came at the end of the documentary, when one of the speakers stated that many white people today say that they would never have put up with all of the ridiculous segregation and exploitation of black people if they lived in the past, yet they do nothing to fight against the forms of racism they see around them every day.
What Can I Do?
I’m not an expert, but I believe that the best way to fight against racism is the same way we work to stop any injustice around us: when you see it, don’t stand for it. If there is legislation which treats any American citizens unfairly, speak out against it and join others in working to change it. Don’t let yourself become complacent and believe that because certain things have changed for the better everything is fine now. Treat Black History month with the honor and respect you give our other national holidays and seasons. Make it a goal to read a book or watch a movie about African American history each February. Make a change in your own life, and growth will continue from there. That’s how you begin to make a difference.