Viewpoint: Black History Month Doesn’t Represent All Blacks

The duality of black ethnic pride and black American pride should be recognized and celebrated

  • Share
  • Read Later
Paul Schutzer / Time & Life Pictures / Getty Images

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speaking at the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom at the Lincoln Memorial on May 17, 1957.

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.”

(MORE: MLK Day: It’s Time for a Second Emancipation Proclamation)

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.

(MORE: Does the GOP Really Want to Woo Black and Latino Voters?)

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.

PHOTOS: Historic Images of African-American Life During the Depression

5 comments
QueenDeleona
QueenDeleona like.author.displayName 1 Like

Much of this is due to the fact that many Blacks in America think of themselves, their experiences, their culture, and religions to be the be all and end all of what it is to "black". They have a tendency to not see themselves as African and thus separate themselves from the rest of the diaspora, particularly if it is not English speaking. At the same token, we also find ourselves with the problem of how we define who and what is or are Blacks and blackness. For instance, if we were to define by the old One Drop Law, what would be the real numbers of "Blacks" coming from the Caribbean whether they spoke Spanish or Portuguese or even French? Does language change race? Why does the Anglo-Saxonized blacks of America see Puerto Ricans, Cubans, and so on as not being "black"? Why don't they honor the contributions of these sectors of the Black/African diaspora, but then again, it's sad to say that American blacks seem limited to only honor Rosa Parks, MLK, and those Black people that their white counter parts only wish to discuss and recognize??? IJS

hummingbird
hummingbird like.author.displayName 1 Like

I have been complaining about this for years as it seems that Black History Month is about African-Africans only and not black people from other parts of this world. If that's the case, then they should call it Black American History Month. Another criticism is that it focuses way too much on musicians, actors and sports stars. We need to talk more about Black educators, engineers, entrepreneurs, architects etc.

bibleverse1
bibleverse1 like.author.displayName 1 Like

It is my hope there is a time when Black History is merely American History.

ShanayWatson-Whittaker
ShanayWatson-Whittaker like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

Maybe it's me being a product of NYC but Marcus Garvey, Shirley Chisholm, Claude McKay, and Colin Powell are threads in the fabric of Black History Month. All have caribbean ties and the respect and influence each of these leaders have earned go nationwide. I had to chuckle at this article because the ties that bind Blacks of all persuasions are that we are Black. I think it's great that we recognize these trailblazers but I've never heard anyone question whether one section of the Black populous has ownership  of a month. 

C4CFED
C4CFED like.author.displayName 1 Like

Today indeed is the beginning of Black History month and the beginning of The Coalition For Change, Inc. (C4C)'s campaign to end discrimination and retaliation by public officials in the federal sector. http://coalition4change.org/ As we celebrate the accomplishments of notable civil rights leaders, inventors, educators and others we must continue to open doors that are swiftly closing on the masses. See video Racism In the Federal Sector http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MqyDPh3OHpk C4C is calling for all Americans to petiition the President for "mandatory discipline" against public officials who are found guilty of violating civil right laws against U.S. citizens.