The month dedicated to celebrating the accomplishments of African Americans came to an end Sunday. This year, more than ever, we should think about the purpose Black History Month serves.
Are African Americans better off this year because February was designated in our honor? Is America, in general, more knowledgeable about the contributions Black people are making to this country?
And are we any more unified as a nation than we were when the idea of promoting the achievements of African Americans was born in 1915, just 50 years after the end of slavery?
The answer to each of those questions is no. That would seem to indicate that it is time to rethink the mission of Black History Month and focus on the current issues that impact the everyday lives of African Americans.
Black History Month and its predecessor, Negro History Week, served an invaluable purpose at the time of their inception decades ago. But times have changed, and the goal of Black History Month needs to come into sync with where African Americans are today.
In the era of Laquan McDonald, George Floyd and Black Lives Matter, it is crucial that we expand the emphasis of Black History Month from its previous mission to applaud the accomplishments of African Americans to focusing on serious issues that continue to threaten our future as a race.
From slavery to the civil rights movement, social injustice always has been among the most prevalent problems plaguing Black people, and it is evident that it will continue to pose a major challenge.
Imagine the impact of dedicating an entire month to working on solutions for the disparities and developing a road map forward. There is no better way to show our pride in being African Americans than to take our future into our own hands.
Carter G. Woodson and others founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History in Chicago in 1915 to study the achievements of Black Americans and provide a platform for teaching African Americans about the roles their ancestors played in the development and progress of this country.
In 1926, they designated the second week of February Negro History Week, recognizing the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. Their goal was to help Blacks understand their worth by highlighting the many contributions African Americans were making to society.
The underlying message was that Black people are as American as anyone, and they deserve the respect, dignity and opportunities that go along with citizenship.
But there was also an unspoken goal. It was to make Black people more acceptable to white Americans. The founders realized that regardless of how proud African Americans were to be Black, it would not result in any concrete advantages unless white people, who held the power, understood their worth as well.
At the time, white people had to be convinced that African Americans weren’t the animals they had been portrayed as during slavery. They needed to look at Black people and see potential engineers, doctors, teachers and politicians.
While much progress has been made in the past century, Black people, in many ways, are still fighting to be seen as productive citizens by mainstream America.
Extending the designation to the entire month of February was a natural outgrowth of the 1960s civil rights movement. The struggle for equality was about forcing white people to move over and allow Black citizens to obtain their fair share of America’s prosperity.
But it was also about demanding a share of the power white people wielded — and that always has been a problem. Many white people want to keep it to themselves.
More than 100 years later, Black people are still trying to prove their value. And in many cases, white people still aren’t buying it.
Woodson believed that Black people must know their history to intelligently partake in the advantages America has to offer. America has long tried to systematically cover up the role Black people played in building this country. Woodson understood that if Black people didn’t step up to tell their own stories, they would never be told.
That remains true today. What is different, though, is that we now know that talking about our achievements does not push our agenda forward. We have learned that highlighting the accomplishments of a Maya Angelou, a Harriet Tubman or even a Barack Obama will not stop a police officer from pressing his knee on a Black man’s neck or shooting a teenager 16 times.
It is easy these days to teach young people who they are as a people, but it is much harder to get them on track to where they need to be. Of course, history is essential to everyone’s self-esteem, but fixing the broken system is essential to survival.
There is no question about the resilience of African Americans. We have overcome institutionalized slavery and legal segregation. But we are still trying to get to the point where our history does not interfere with our present.
Black History Month should be a tool to weave the two together and provide a platform for fighting against the things that continue to get in our way.
We must continue to tell our stories, but taking a month to celebrate our victories is a wasted opportunity to better secure our future. We must use this month to build coalitions that will stand with us against the injustices that slavery and the civil rights movement left unresolved.
African Americans — and the country — would benefit more if we used the month of February to focus on improving the present rather than looking back at the past.
Dahleen Glanton is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.