Every year in February, people of African descent celebrate Black History Month where they remember important personalities and events in the history of the African diaspora. In the United States of America, where Black History Month originated, it is also known as African American History Month.
Plainly, Africa does not celebrate Black History Month even though the event has received official recognition from governments in the United States and Canada, where it is celebrated every February, and in Ireland, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom, where it is celebrated every October.
So, why don’t Africans celebrate Black History Month? How did Black History Month come to be and why was February chosen for it? What is the relevance of Black History Month to Africa and Africans both at home and in the diaspora?
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Origin of the Black History Month
Black History Month has become one of the most celebrated cultural heritage months of the year. Schools and businesses offer Black-history-themed meals, lectures, plays, and quizzes while major brands roll out clothing, television specials, and content for consumers.
It all started in 1915 when Carter Godwin Woodson, who is now known as the “Father of Black History,” and minister Jesse Edward Moorland founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, now known as the Association for the Study of African American Life and History. This group focused on researching the advancements made by people of African descent and, in 1926, they sponsored the first Negro History Week, which is now known as Black History Month.
Woodson, whose parents were enslaved, was an author, historian, and the second African American to earn a Ph.D. at Harvard University in 1912 after W.E.B Du Bois.
It is important to note that the Negro History Week was not conceived in a vacuum. The 1920s saw the rise in interest in African American culture that was represented by the Harlem Renaissance, an intellectual and cultural revival of African American music, dance, art, fashion, literature, theatre, and politics centred in Harlem, Manhattan, New York City, which extended into the 1930s. It was also known as New Negro Movement.
Through Negro History Week, Woodson hoped to draw on this imagination and pique interest even further. He had two objectives: One was to use history to remind White America that Black people had played major roles in the founding of the nation and, as a result, needed to be treated fairly as citizens.
His other aim was to raise the consciousness of Black life and history at a time when few newspapers, books, or universities paid attention to the Black community but concentrated on the negative.
By honouring heroic Black people, Woodson wanted to illustrate the African American’s value, with the expectation that the Negro History Week will act as a vehicle for racial change permanently.
In February 1969, Black History Month was first proposed by black educators and the Black United Students at Kent State University. The next year, the first celebration of Black History Month took place from January 2 to February 28, 1970.
By 1976, the event was being celebrated all across the United States in educational institutions, centres of Black culture, and community centres. That same year, President Gerald Ford recognised and officially designated February as Black History Month in the United States during the celebration of the nation’s Bicentennial. Since then, every U.S President has recognised Black History Month and its mission. But it wasn’t until 1986, when Congress passed “National Black History Month” into law, that many citizens in the United States started to recognise it officially. The aim of the law was to make all Americans conscious of the fight for freedom and equality.
This decision was met with an enthralling response by the black community that it prompted the creation of Black History clubs and an increase in interest among teachers.
But why did the fathers of Black History Month choose February?
Why Is Black History Month Celebrated in February?
Woodson chose February for the Negro History Week as it coincided with the birthdates of both President Abraham Lincoln, who was born on February 12, and famed abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, who was born on February 14. Both men played a significant role in helping to end slavery.
Also, February 1 is National Freedom Day in the United States, the anniversary of the approval of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery in 1865.
President Abraham Lincoln had signed the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution on February 1, 1865, freeing all slaves in the United States. Although, it would take until later before the states ratified it.
Major Richard Robert Wright Sr., who was enslaved and became a civil rights advocate and author, felt that all Americans should have a day to remember their freedom. Wright invited national and local leaders to meet in Philadelphia to devise arrangements to set aside February 1 each year to celebrate the signing of the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution.
After Wright’s death in 1947, the United States Congress passed a bill declaring February 1 National Freedom Day. President Harry Truman then signed the holiday declaration into law on June 30, 1948.
Black History Month in Canada
In Canada, Black history has not always been celebrated or highlighted. There is little mention that some of the loyalists who came to Canada after the American Revolution and settled in the Maritimes were people of African descent, or of the many sacrifices made in wartime by soldiers of African descent as far back as the War of 1812.
A motion by politician Jean Augustine of Canada’s House of Commons in December 1995, officially recognised February as Black History Month and honoured Black Canadians.
In February 2008, Senator Donald Oliver, the first Black man appointed to the Senate, introduced the Motion to Recognize Contributions of Black Canadians, and February as Black History Month. It received unanimous approval and was adopted on March 4, 2008. The adoption of this motion completed Canada’s parliamentary position on Black History Month.
Black History Month in the United Kingdom
When Black History Month first started in the United Kingdom, there was a big focus on black American history. Over time, there has been more attention on black British history and key black figures from the UK. A broad range of topics is covered, from Britain’s colonial past to migration and music.
Black History Month in the UK was first celebrated in London on October 1, 1987, as part of African Jubilee Year. The event marks the contributions of Black people throughout history and the contributions of African, Asian, and Caribbean people to the economic, cultural, and political life in the UK. Over the years, there have been growing calls from campaigners for black history to be included in the curriculum in England – and not just celebrated in October.
The Relevance of Black History Month
Since Black History Month, or African American History Month, is an annual celebration of achievements made by Black Americans and the central roles of African Americans in U.S. history, it is safe to say that many Africans do not really find it upon themselves to celebrate it.
As a matter of fact, the indifference of African immigrants to Black History Month is related to the fact that it tends to ignore African history in favour of an emphasis on African American history, especially in recent years. Thus, these Africans don’t see themselves represented in this history.
Except for South Africa which suffered White domination and supremacy until 1994, coupled with the suppression of South African history by the colonialists, African countries are not really wont into celebrating the event.
However, the relevance of Black History Month cannot be underestimated.
In 1870, the Black population of the United States was 4.8 million people; in 2018, the number has risen to 43.8 million African Americans.
In conclusion, Black History Month will allow and encourage people to learn about and celebrate the contributions of the African Diaspora throughout the world. The event will also educate, entertain, and inform the public about black history.
To Woodson, what started as Negro History Week 95 years ago, is now a global annual event that is essential for young African Americans to understand and be proud of their heritage. To be Black…and proud!
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Campbell, A. (2020, October 21). Black History Month: What is it and why does it matter? BBC. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/explainers-54522248
History.com Editors (2009, October 27). Black History Facts. History. Retrieved from https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/black-history-facts
Wibneh, G. (2015, February 26) Why my African friends don’t celebrate Black History Month. The Seattle Globalist. Retrieved from https://seattleglobalist.com/2015/02/26/black-history-month-east-african-seattle/34284
Yancey-Bragg, N. (2021, February 1). Why is Black History Month in February? How do you celebrate? Everything you need to know. USA TODAY. https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2021/02/01/black-history-month-2021-how-celebrate-what-know/4292640001/