A Month for Enlightenment: What Black History Is Or Is Not

Commentary By: Rann Miller, Special To Follow South Jersey

Educators hear a lot of misinformation from students. Thus, one of the powers of teaching is found in the opportunities to enlighten. Black History Month provides teachers with such an opportunity to both enlighten students as well as themselves.

An example is the common misnomer that Black History Month is in February because it is the shortest month of the year. Over the years, I’ve heard students say that as evidence of racism. I’ve even heard adults say this, as recent as 2023.

Sadly, I use to think the same thing.

The truth is, February being only 28 days is not why the month is designated Black History Month. Black History Month originated as Negro History Week by Dr. Carter G. Woodson, the father of Black history. Woodson, a historian, was interested in countering the myths that Black people were a people without a history and have failed to contribute to the history of the world.

Negro History Week was an opportunity to celebrate Black history and Black contributions to the history of the world.

Woodson himself chose the week of Frederick Douglass’ (Feb 14) and Abraham Lincoln’s (Feb 12) birthdays to celebrate Negro History Week. Frederick Douglass for his activism on behalf of Black people as an abolitionist and Abraham Lincoln because of his issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, which emancipated enslaved persons in Confederate territories.

If the birthdays were in different weeks, the week of Douglass’ birthday was the designated week for Negro History Week.

The week was formally expanded into one month in 1976, as a result of the work of Woodson’s institute—the Association for the Study of African American Life and History—and the Ford Administration. But the formal expansion was a result of Black communities expanding Negro History Week amongst themselves because one week simply was not enough for the community to both study and celebrate Black people.

While the month is an opportunity to study and celebrate Black accomplishments, many have used this month as an opportunity to compartmentalize Black history. That is, relegate Black history to a one-month celebration as oppose to a teaching Black history year-round, using February as a time to highlight Black history even further. Dr. Woodson creation was about the latter as oppose to the former.

For Woodson, Negro History Week was an opportunity to for educators to review the knowledge of Black history taught to students throughout the year. To learn Black history exclusively during the week (now month) was a misuse of the time and a years’ worth of lost opportunity. Woodson said:

“It is evident from the numerous calls for orators during Negro History Week that the schools and their administrators do not take the study of the Negro seriously enough to use Negro History Week as a short period for demonstrating what the students have learned in their study of the Negro during the whole school year.”

Woodson suggested, rather than focusing on the challenges Black people face as a result of their experiences United States—from an ignorant perspective—youth should be exposed to the history of men and women to inspire them to continue towards progress for themselves and the Black community. I would add that youth should be inspired by these men and women for their accomplishments AND for their resistance against white settler colonialism.

This Black History Month, I encourage all of us, no matter our differences, to take the opportunity to enlighten ourselves about the richness of Black history; not only what we’ve accomplished in the face of oppression, but also our resistance to that oppression; past and present.

Rann Miller is the author of The Cooper Street Offense: From Camden to Woodbury and Resistance Stories from Black History for Kids. A native South Jersey resident, he is currently the Director of Anti-Bias and DEI Initiatives at Camden’s Charter School Network in Camden.

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