Every February, we are reminded of the influence that Black Americans have had on our nation’s history through the celebration of Black History Month. This month is not only a time to learn about what Black people have contributed to this nation through art, culture, politics, and inventions, but how we have been able to accomplish so much and remain resilient, considering that the grim reality of slavery defined our origin story in the United States and Caribbean. As believers, this month can be especially beneficial as a time to promote God’s heart for reconciliation, unity, and treating people as the dignity-filled image bearers that they are.
We’ve all heard the names of some of the more prominent figures like Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Harriet Tubman. But to truly celebrate Black History Month means commemorating the heroic efforts of a man named Carter G. Woodson who is known as the father of Black history—and the eventual creator of Black History Month.
Woodson’s story is unique in that it mirrors the collective African American experience. He overcame his own set of difficulties that could have left him stagnant and hopeless but pushed through those hardships and made a huge impact on the world. Born in 1875 to enslaved and illiterate parents in Virginia, he grew up autodidactic since he couldn’t attend primary school regularly.
Despite being poor and lacking consistent schooling as a young boy, Woodson earned a bachelor’s degree, became the second Black person in history to earn a doctorate from Harvard University, founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, and wrote numerous books and publications.
Early on in his career, he soon realized that the contributions of African Americans were being seriously overlooked, and it showed in the active suppression of their accomplishments in school textbooks and other media outlets. This realization was soon solidified after he was rejected from attending any of the American Historical Association conferences because he was Black—even though he was a faithful, due-paying member of the organization. This frustration fueled him to dedicate his time to doing historical research and collecting thousands of African American artifacts and publications. Then, in 1926 his idea for Negro History Week was born.
Woodson’s goal was to showcase Black contributions, and he launched what he called Negro History Week (which later became Black History Month) for every second week of February. He summed up the purpose of the week this way:
“It is not so much a Negro History Week as it is a History Week. We should emphasize not Negro History, but the Negro in History. What we need is not a history of selected races or nations, but the history of the world void of national bias, race hatred and religious prejudice.”
Woodson’s idea to put Black accomplishments on display would soon expand, becoming an annual observance for the entire month of February in the United States.
With the racial tensions we’re still dealing with today, many people have often asked why we need a Black history month, saying that it keeps us locked in the past and fuels more division when we should be trying to unite. But for Black people, there is no celebration of the present or the future without acknowledging the past. Our desire and ability to celebrate each other is not only about uplifting our dignity but about encouraging each other through the advancements we’ve made.
When we look back on our nation’s history, we’re brought face to face with the reality that the church has had many opportunities to fight against racism but, unfortunately, has not been seen as the champion of anti-racism that it should have been. But today, the church can use Black History Month to lift its voice against the sin of racism and toward the unique livelihoods of Black lives. The church can use this month to promote Black dignity and accomplishment and to remind the world that, even through an awful history, Black people have always been made in the image of God.
Black History Month is a time to celebrate every triumph that Black people have made despite our horrid origins in the United States. Even while being stripped of our unique African and indigenous cultures, languages, families, and dignity, Black people have made a unique and significant mark on our nation’s history. With Black History Month, we have a concentrated time to reflect on pioneers of the past and current history-makers. Let’s continue to remember the past so that we can continue to influence the future.
If you’re interested in learning more about how you can pursue racial unity in your community, check out Oneness Embraced with Dr. Tony Evans.