This week will begin what we call Black History Month or, at Ohio State, “United Black World Month.” This month is a federally recognized, nationwide celebration that provides the opportunity for all Americans to reflect on the significant roles that African-Americans have contributed in the shaping of the United States.
It is also contested because there are those who do not want to take time out to celebrate the contributions and history of people of color. This hostility is rooted in suggestions that white people are not celebrated.
History in the West is mostly the tales of men, so that the story is gendered. It is also white, so that it is racialized. Thoughtfully bringing the history of all people to the forefront is what Black History Month represents.
Carter G. Woodson, considered to be a pioneer in the study of African-American history, is given much of the credit for Black History Month. The son of former slaves, Woodson spent his childhood working in coal mines and quarries. After years of hard work and determination, Woodson went on to receive his master’s degree in history from the University of Chicago, and he eventually earned a doctorate from Harvard.
It was during this time that Woodson began a national discussion that history textbooks left out America’s black population. Woodson took on the task of writing African-Americans back into the nation’s history. He founded the publication, the Journal of Negro History, which would use the work of scholars from multiple fields to contribute to this effort. In 1926, he developed the first week celebrating black history. He knew that until history became everyone’s story instead of a winner’s story, this process needed to happen.
If we were to just look at inventors and innovators that happened to be black we can understand why we need Black History Month and taking time to learn more than the standard of Martin Luther King Jr. and Harriet Tubman. This is not to lessen their contributions, but to attest that there are thousands of lives unexamined who have helped build our nation.
For example, there are folks who have created and cultivated hundreds of patents that set the U.S. as a world leader from the 1800s to the 1900s. George Crum invented the potato chip. Charles Drew pioneered blood preservation and helped to establish the modern blood bank. Lonnie Johnson created the Super Soaker.
The list is endless. Robert Pelham invented a tabulating device and a tallying machine for the U.S. Census Bureau. Daniel Williams created the method for and accomplished the first open heart surgery. Patricia Bath created a laser-based device to perform cataracts surgery. All things and people we might not know about, but yet we know Thomas Edison and Benjamin Franklin.
Looking at the accomplishments and contributions of black people then provides the framework of incorporating the contributions and amazing feats of everyday people. Black History Month reminds us to recognize the voices that become silent from acts of injustice.
It is because of Woodson’s work that other marginalized groups, women (March), Latinos (mid-September to mid-October), indigenous Americans (November) and others have months that are used to write their lives and contributions of their groups back into mainstream narrative. When we learn of the contributions of black people, we correct the stereotype that the only field a black person can go into is basketball or football. Knowledge is powerful, but only when we have the opportunity to know it.