Today marks the beginning of Black History Month, a time for the U.S. to highlight achievements and contributions of black Americans in the nation. Usually that means celebrating such figures as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. — as it should. But we also need to expand our definitions of the black population to reflect its changing demographics and the increased numbers of African and Caribbean immigrants and include in our celebrations black ethnic individuals who have advanced black society, politics, activism and the arts, such as Kwame Nkrumah, Shirley Chisholm, Stokely Carmichael and Jean-Michel Basquiat.
The origins of this month began in 1926, when historian Carter G. Woodson (and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History) declared the second week of February to be Negro History Week. In 1976, the federal government expanded the celebration to the entire month. It was President Gerald Ford who urged Americans to “seize the opportunity to honor the too often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”
At the time, fewer than 3% of the blacks living in America were foreign-born African Americans, according to the U.S. Census. Today, Census numbers show that 12% percent of blacks in the U.S. are from Africa or the Caribbean. That number will likely continue to grow, as African populations are among the fastest-growing immigrant groups. Moreover, these numbers do not fully encapsulate the black ethnic diversity that exists among second- and third-generation blacks in the U.S.
If you want an example of the changing face of black America, look no further than the family of President Barack Obama, whose father was a Kenyan student who was part of JFK’s American Education for African Students program. Obama connects and identifies with this ethnic origin, while his wife Michelle connects and identifies with her black American ancestry as a descendant of slaves and sharecroppers who moved from the South to northern cities during the Great Migration. Sasha and Malia represent two threads of black history in America.
As America becomes even more diverse, a growing number of blacks will experience this duality of black ethnic pride and black American pride. An explicit recognition of the historical and modern-day contributions of native-born and foreign-born black Americans will assist coalition building within an increasingly diverse black ethnic population. So as we read aloud the great works of Toni Morrison and Langston Hughes this month, we too can include Haitian writer Edwidge Danticat and Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie. As we remember the civil rights activism of Judge Constance Baker Motley, we can also include the freedom fights of Marcus Garvey from Jamaica.
It was the hope of Carter G. Woodson that this holiday would eventually be eliminated when black history became fundamental to American history. As of yet, that has not happened. But until it does, it is essential that black ethnic history also be included in order to most accurately reflect all of the contributions of blacks in America.