Now that February has kicked off, social media streams are sometimes sprinkled and sometimes filled with celebrations of or objections to Black History month. For many, the celebration of Black History month is warranted and natural, but for others, there are questions why any special celebration is necessary.
History of Black History Month
Though it has its roots in the beginning of the 20th century, the first official celebration of Black History month was in 1976. Every president since that time has renewed that declaration.
The purpose of the first Black History month was to recognize the progress that the United States had made toward the fulfillment of the humanist ideals that framed the American Revolution. As Gerald Ford noted in his declaration:
The last quarter-century has finally witnessed significant strides in the full integration of black people into every area of national life. In celebrating Black History Month, we can take satisfaction from this recent progress in the realization of the ideals envisioned by our Founding Fathers. But, even more than this, we can seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.
I urge my fellow citizens to join me in tribute to Black History Month and to the message of courage and perseverance it brings to all of us.
Forty-two years later, there are some Americans who question the need to continue to celebrate the month, because they believe that the errors of the first two centuries of American history have largely been amended. However, a realistic look at the social and economic realities of our nations shows that even if the legal abuses of the Jim Crow era, post-bellum culture, and legalized slavery have been corrected, the long-term impacts continue.
Why is Black History Month Necessary?
Black History month, therefore, still serves to remind us of what ought to have been, what can be, and the work that is left to be done.
Additionally, Black History month reminds us that despite the barriers placed in the way of success, progress, and achievement of African-Americans, these Americans still accomplished impressive things. The imago Dei can overcome, no matter how difficult other humans try to suppress its outworking.
Different groups will no doubt draw different themes from the celebration of Black History month. However, one dominant theme Christians—especially white Christians—can draw from the celebration of this month is how a bad doctrine of anthropology taints the water of society.
Consider that at the core of the abuses of Black Americans is and has been the denial of their full humanity. There is a reason civil rights protesters carried placards and wore signs declaring “I am a man.” This was not simply a political statement, but a profoundly theological one. As a nation, the United States neglected to acknowledge the full humanity of African-Americans. This was explicit in some of the early rhetoric supporting chattel slavery, where the ensoulment of dark skinned persons was denied as a way to justify not evangelizing them at first. Blacks were not simply treated like animals, they were described as animals--sometimes from the pulpit.
The celebration of the beauty of blackness, the accomplishments of African-Americans, and the distinct sub-cultures within the tapestry of African-American culture is good and right because it is a celebration of the full humanity of dark skinned humans. Black History month gives people of all skin tones opportunity to celebrate that goodness, even if it different than our own sub-culture's. It is a way to celebrate the common standing with a group whose humanity was previously denied.
Black chattel slavery as it existed in 19th century America was particularly damnable because it actively denied the humanity of the slaves, and of all people of color. This is why the comparison of other ancient slavery (e.g., the objection that all ancient cultures owned slaves) does not diminish the moral blindness and perfidy of slavery as it existed in the pre-Industrial West.
But still, once the humanity of African-Americans was begrudgingly acknowledged by the abolition of slavery and eventually the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the Constitution, much of the Land of the Free perpetuated the statutory abuse of humans by creating the Jim Crow laws. These are laws that in retrospect appear to be as preposterous as the school-kid fear of getting cooties. Think about it, whites were so disgusted with African-Americans they created separate water fountains so they wouldn’t get infected with blackness. More likely it was simply a way of showing that despite the legal acknowledgement of the humanity of African-Americans, whites could still deny them recognition of that fact.
The inefficiency and foolishness of these immoral actions will not cease to be an embarrassment to the United States. However, like all errors, it should spur us to do better. We can't overcome the embarrassment by ignoring the failures of the past, but only by doing much better in the present and future.
Black History month forces those of us in the majority to remember the foolishness of our forebears and to work to do something better in the future. Black History month also allows us to remember the amazing work of men and women who resisted injustice to accomplish significant goods, like the women depicted in the movie Hidden Figures, or like George Washington Carver, or like thousands of others who accomplished so much despite being oppressed.
Black History month is, in many regards, a celebration of the greatness of humanity. As often happens, the greatness of humanity is also demonstrated in stark contrast to the depravity of humanity. Don’t let the color of your skin allow you to miss the greatness of one group because your own group happened to be the villains in this story.
How to Celebrate Black History Month
Although there are and always will be ideological abuses within the groups that participate in celebration of any public movement, whether that is the environment, racial pride, or advances in workers protection, we should not fail to legitimately celebrate good things.
Celebrating Black History is celebrating the triumph of humanity. It requires remembering a not-too-distant past that is embarrassing, but which we never want to see again. Thus, a dive into African-American poetry, gospel music, and unique technological inventions of our fellow citizens does not need to fall prey to unhealthy identity politics, but should be a legitimate thankfulness for the persistence of impressive people in the face of significant opposition.
If our African-American neighbors happen to draw especial encouragement from this month, that is good and natural—it is empowering and encouraging to realize that your family has done something good and great, because it teaches you that you can, too. It does whites no harm to have African-Americans built up. There is an infinite supply of happiness in the world, which only grows when we share it.
Just as we celebrate the theological accomplishments of the early Reformers, so we should celebrate the accomplishments of people of color in the United States. Neither group is or was perfect, but the world is better for what they have done.
So, celebrate Black History month no matter the color of your skin, because as African-Americans advance, the whole of society gets stronger. That is a good thing.