by Channon Oyeniran
“Black History Month must be more than just a month of remembrance; it should be a tribute to our history and reminder of the work that lies in the months and years ahead.”
– Marty Meehan
With Black History Month (BHM) coming up for the United States and Canada in February 2017 and having been celebrated in the UK just last month, I thought it would be a good idea to talk about BHM, where it came from, how it began, and what it’s all about. BHM is a time I look forward to every year because it provides me opportunities to educate different people about Black history, as well as to learn more about my ancestors. I always look forward to February with great anticipation, awe and pride that I come from a people who have been through so much suffering and have still managed to stand in spite of it all! Although I try to showcase it throughout the year, BHM is a time when I get to personally share with anyone who will listen why this time is so special to me.
BHM is set aside to remember and commemorate the accomplishments, struggles and sacrifice of peoples of African descent. What was started as Negro History Week by African-American scholar Carter G. Woodson in February 1926 has turned into a full month of commemoration in the United States (in 1976), the UK (in 1987), and Canada (in 1995). Woodson chose February as a time to celebrate black history as February is the birth month of President Abraham Lincoln (who signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863), as well as former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, both of whom played a pivotal role in helping to end the system of slavery in America. BHM is not only a time to remember, but it’s also a time where black people can be proud of who they are, where they came from and all that they have to look forward to!
Misconceptions about Black History
“For Africa to me…is more than a glamorous fact. It is a historical truth. No man can know where he is going unless he knows exactly where he has been and exactly how he arrived at his present place.” – Maya Angelou
Michelle, co-founder of Tuesday Justice, and I were recently talking about BHM and how we both noticed that a lot of Black history curriculum starts with slavery. Remembering and commemorating BHM should always include the history of the continent of Africa and the peoples who were taken from its shores. BHM is a time to learn and be educated, and the rich history of Africa, before European contact, must be included in order to gain a full picture of the experiences of people of African descent. For example, when teaching about Black history during BHM and at other times, it is important to remember that Africa was wealthy, its people innovative and intelligent, and a place where networking and trade were happening long before the arrival of the Europeans. Some great accomplishments of life in Africa include:
- Giving rise to the many scientific developments associated with Egypt such as engineering, mathematics, architecture and medicine.
- The great development of civilisations, such as Kush, Axum, Mali, and Great Zimbabwe, before 1500.
- Africans participating in extensive international trading networks and in trans-oceanic travel.
- Trading relations with India, China and other parts of Asia.
We must remember that Black history started with these great achievements and not just when Europeans made contact and began forcibly taking Africans from the continent.
Celebrating Black History Month
Canada: “That the history of black people is really a part of Canadian history, the contributions that we made to Canadian history, the contributions that we made to Canadian society are part of the contributions we should have made as Canadians in Canadian society. I think that in every aspect of Canadian life you can find someone of African descent, of Caribbean descent, of black… participating and therefore it is essential that, that be recognized by the society.” – Honourable Jean Augustine
USA: “We should emphasize not Negro history, but the Negro in history. What we need is not a history of selected races or nations, but the history of the world void of national bias, race hate, and religious prejudice.” – Carter G. Woodson
UK: “For too long History has been written by the ‘victors’. We want a world in which success is open to all. Black history Month helps achieve that, rewriting our history in colour.” – Chi Onwurah
In all three countries, in October for the UK and February for the US and Canada, schools, organizations, individuals, etc. celebrate and pay tribute to the history of Black people. The Black presence in Canada has been around since 1605, thus the history of Black people in Canada is long standing and rich!
Often during BHM, teachers focus on the achievements and celebrate the legacy that people of African descent left behind. There are different assemblies, conferences, TV programs, public speaking engagements at schools, presentations, various articles, trips to historic sites in Canada, the U.S. and the UK, where people of African descent left their mark. BHM is a time of memorialization with a goal to educate, recall and celebrate the Black experience, achievements and endurance of people of African descent, from their forceful journey from the shores of Africa to their lives in the Americas and Europe.
BHM, whether in Canada, the United States or the UK, is a time to honour the achievements and excellency of a community who has risen and keeps on rising above the previous and sometimes current degradation. These three nations all realized the importance of paying tribute to people who helped to build their very country. During BHM, communities in these countries are encouraged to use this time to learn, to accomplish and to excel in all that they do. Although some people question why a whole month is dedicated to Black history, it is my hope that people will take the time to really learn what BHM is all about and why it’s important. It’s also with great anticipation that I hope Black history will be known as simply just history – a history that includes people that helped shape the world as we know it now, just as Carter Woodson dreamed.
For further information…
- Black History Month in the UK
- Black History Month in Canada
- Black History, Canada
- African American History Month in the USA