February is Black History Month, and schools and some corporations everywhere gear up for the event and fine tuning their lesson plans, but could the educational community, businesses, and parents be doing more? What other steps could teachers, parents and others be taking to teach the next generation about the enormous sacrifices and contributions the African American community has made, and how often those contributions and sacrifices were denigrated, underappreciated or even ignored?
There is only so much a cultural celebration, even a month-long one, can do to change opinions and attitudes. As Elvia Díaz, an editorial columnist for azcentral and The Republic, notes in a thought-provoking opinion piece on azcentral, “Why do we need a designated month to be celebrated only to be forgotten – discounted, marginalized and fought against the rest of the year?” Sincere Kirabo, a Black writer and a humanist activist, echoes much the same sentiments in a piece on The Humanist, insisting that the Black History Month is nothing more than a decades-old palliative. The celebration, he argues, does not effectively address the enduring distortions about Black history in everything from history books to the culturally transmitted general knowledge of U.S. history.
In the wake of the George Floyd killing as well as other violence as well as discrimination against Black people and the wave of police violence aimed at people of color, Black History Month has taken on a new significance, and that fact has not gone unnoticed. It has never been more important for young people, no matter what their race, to learn about the real history (both the great and the tragic) of the country they call home, especially when the world is facing such unprecedented challenges? And much of this tragic history of discrimination, violence, segregation and terrorizing the black community was happening as recently as 1970s. Heck many schools and other facilities were still segregating Black and White people in the 1970s, and Black people did not even have equal rights to vote until the 1960s.
The fact that so much teaching as well as business communications have gone virtual just exacerbates the situation, but that does not mean creative teachers, both in the classroom and at home, cannot overcome those challenges and make this year’s Black History Month one to remember. What can corporations as well as non-profits do to recognize the Black community year round?
In fact, the current wave of virtual learning could be the perfect jumping off point for teachers, one that moves beyond the history of black people in America and focuses squarely on the present instead.
Purpose of Black History month
Lest readers get the wrong impression, the Black History Month does serve a useful purpose. It helps the African American community maintain a sense of kinship even as it diversifies and splinters. The Black History Month offers a formal process for passing on knowledge from one generation to the next, providing a way of preserving the community’s culture for posterity. Most importantly, it helps stoke inspiration by fostering a sense of pride in the achievements of the community. We at women and minority business even have a number of Black businesses and entrepreneurs listed in a directory.
The benefits of the Black History Month are not limited to the African American community or the broader American populace. For instance, shortly after he was released from prison, Nelson Mandela gave a speech in Pietermaritzburg South Africa in which he spoke about how Black historical figures such as Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King Jr. had inspired him. In the same way, the legacy of Rosa Parks inspired students at the University of Australia to undertake a bus ride in 1965 to bring to light the depth of racism against the country’s indigenous inhabitants. Her legacy was also the inspiration for the Bristol Bus Boycott of 1963.
That said, the Black History Month and the tradition that preceded it were never intended to be a permanent fixture. Rather, the goal was to create an environment in which Black history would seep into the broader culture. This way, the history would become an integral part of day-to-day life, meaning the African American community – and everyone else including the business world – would learn about Black history every day. In time, so the thinking went, there would be no need for a specific month to celebrate Black history; it would be celebrated every day.
Digital Divide of Black Community vs. others
If it has done nothing else, the move to the virtual classroom as well as workplace has shone a spotlight on the digital divide, an issue that has been bubbling up and hiding under the surface for decades now. When the home became the classroom as well as the workplace, the stark differences between the races, and the classes, became all too apparent. For affluent parents and suburbs, finding a space to learn or work remotely could be a simple as emptying out a spare bedroom, while poor people of color in the inner city were left struggling in their crowded apartments.
The technology needed to make online schooling and working from home possible was another impediment for people of color, one that had gone unnoticed by many people outside of that particular circle. The divide between the haves and have nots had often gone unnoticed, and it was easy for white suburbanites to assume that everyone had access to the same high-speed broadband as they did. But when the stories of poor kids roaming the neighborhoods in search of free Wi-Fi were broadcast, that divide between all too apparent.
Focus on Future of Diversity and Opportunities
As Black History Month rolls around this February, the teaching community, the business community and others concerned about the welfare of children and the success of the next generation would do well to move beyond the lessons of history and focus instead on the future, and there is plenty to focus on in these troubled times. There are wide income disparities, lack of capital for Black owned businesses, lower quality schools/less education funding in Black Communities and countless other obstacle that help cause ongoing hardship.
From the disparities in death rates from coronavirus to vaccine hesitancy based on past abuses aimed at the black community, there is a great deal to mull over during Black History Month, far more in fact than time in recent memory. So as each and every January comes to an end and February begins, now is the time to teach these important lessons, giving students and the workforce the knowledge and the tools they need to solve problems the world has yet to encounter. However, this sharing of knowledge and finding/implementing solutions needs to be done year round – not just during the month of February.
It is obvious that this dream has yet to be attained. The Black History Month is still a month-long rather than an year-round celebration. Perhaps this is a sign that Black history is still viewed as something distinct rather than as part of broader American history. Or, it may be a sign that the Black history taught in schools, on social media or “talking heads” on TV and transmitted to the broader public continues to be riddled with distortions, making this decades-old palliative still necessary. Whatever the reason, that Black history is still celebrated for a month shows that America should strive for more.