Changing the language around Black History Month

State Senator Kevin Parker
State Senator Kevin Parker
State Sen. Kevin Parker/Facebook
State Sen. Kevin Parker (center)

Changing the language around Black History Month

Why it should be called African American History Month
February 26, 2018

Since its creation in 1926, Black History Month has served as a medium for celebrating the achievements of black luminaries in every field of endeavor. However, I believe we ought to become progressively more comfortable with referencing this month of February as African American History Month.

It’s important that we change the lexicon from Black History to African American History Month for a very specific reason. When we talk about African Americans, it puts the conversation in a global context with the understanding that the people we are talking about just did not appear out of nowhere. Rather, we came from a specific place – Africa.

Black History Month was created by Carter G. Woodson, a historian who headed an association dedicated to the study of the life and history of African American people. This was important because of the attempt to essentially erase the contributions of African American people from the face of world history. So though it is wonderful to talk about the people and places of historical significance, it is far more important at this point of our history to understand why we celebrate this month.  

We need to understand that the history of African American does not begin in 1619 with the first ships bringing Africans into enslavement to the shores of America. The history of African people and African Americans begins in Africa. Therefore, you cannot understand African American unless you understand Africa.

To borrow the example popularized by Malcolm X: If a cat has kittens in the oven, it does not make them biscuits. So being black and born in America does not make us any less African. Black people are no less African because they were born in North Carolina, or Detroit, or New York, Jamaica, Trinidad, Haiti, Cuba or Brazil. That’s part of what Woodson wanted people to understand.

When we look at the great civilizations of the world we often begin with Greece and Rome, which are both great places to start. But the issue is oftentimes this is done at the expense of skipping over Africa and the great civilization of Kemet (which is commonly referred to as ancient Egypt). Functionally, Egypt became one of the first significant cradles of civilization in the world. Therefore we know that African people did not come to the new world with a blank slate.

But the history was told to us as such. Sadly, we were “sold” a history which erroneously told us that African people had contributed nothing to the world. This was done systemically in order to justify the enslavement of African people. The reality is that you cannot enslave a people and use them as chattel if you don’t first dehumanize them. Shakespeare submits to us that “a rose by any other name is just as sweet.” However, what Shakespeare misses is that calling something what it’s not allows you to treat it differently. That’s why we need to understand and embrace the fact that African people were never slaves. A slave is a thing. As a necessary step forward we need to also change the language from referring to our ancestors as slaves to that of being enslaved.

Furthermore, we must remember those enslaved Africans did not succumb to their conditions. When we study the history of slavery, one thing that is consistently present is resistance. African people did not sit on plantations just working day-by-day without fighting back as the slave master’s history books would have us believe.

African American History Month is an opportunity for us to begin looking at our own history as people of African descent. Moreover, African American history is certainly American history and ought to be studied not just as a discrete course but integrated into all the courses taught from K-12 and in our colleges and universities. Hence, the reason I am supporting a bill in the state Senate introduced by state Sen. Jesse Hamilton and Assemblywoman Diana Richardson that African American history be taught in all our public schools. Moreover, I am advocating that this issue be taken up this legislative session so that we can make this into law in New York state today! That I believe will be a worthy tribute to African American History Month.

Finally, I challenge us to look at the famous names and people like Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Nat Turner, Gabriel Prosser, Denmark Vesey, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, Medgar Evers, Marcus Mosiah Garvey, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Elijah Muhammad, Ralph Abernathy and Stokely Carmichael as individual heroes and sheroes of the African American movement.

But let’s also be mindful of the context in which African Americans have moved and contributed to the larger society. As such, this month becomes the jumping off point from which we integrate African American history throughout the year. This allows us to then add other people’s understanding into the conversation thereby spotlighting the beauty and strength of America. Despite what we see coming out of our nation’s capital, the strength of America is the beauty of our diversity. The fact is that we are stronger working together as the African proverb reminds us: If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.

Kevin Parker
is a state senator representing Flatbush, East Flatbush, Midwood, Ditmas Park, Kensington, Windsor Terrace and Park Slope.