It always seems like Black History Month flies by. In 28 days, corporations, organizations, schools and countless other institutions try to cram centuries’ worth of history into photos and soundbites for the masses. In the past, I have thrown a Black History Month party complete with a quiz that all guests are required to take. Groups are formed and guests are encouraged to work together. Prizes are awarded for the winning group and most people learn something new about the many great leaders in the diasporic Black community. It seems like mainstream America is slowly moving beyond the celebration of just five commonly known Black Americans. Many scholars and researchers are recognizing the need to make Black History Month the most robust month possible, even if it is the shortest.
For far too long, Black History Month was a reiteration of tales of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his now famous “I Have a Dream” speech. This is not to say that Dr. King does not deserve the honor and respect bestowed upon him. However, for many, the celebration of Dr. King now also includes the Civil Rights fundraising and organizing contributions of Coretta Scott King, his wife, as well as the strategic and organizing contributions of his colleague and trusted confidant, Bayard Rustin.
Locally, residents of the Big Apple are indeed celebrating the accomplishments of David Dinkins, New York City’s first (and only) Black mayor, and Shirley Chisholm, who hailed from Brooklyn as the first African-American woman elected to the U.S. Congress. However, journalists such as Ron Howell are delving even deeper into necessary Black history and providing a detailed diasporic and historical portrait of Black America. In his new book, “Boss of Black Brooklyn: The Life and Times of Bertram L. Baker” (Fordham University Press, 2018), Howell discusses Brooklyn’s first Black elected official. Baker emigrated to the U.S. in 1915 from the Caribbean island of St. Nevis and was elected to the New York State Assembly in 1948. Research like Howell’s helps us to better understand the present day political successes of individuals like U.S. Representative Hakeem Jeffries, City Councilmember Jumaane Williams, or Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins.
Famous Astronomer Carl Sagan famously wrote, “You have to know the past to understand the present.” It is imperative that Black History Month is both extended throughout the year and seen as American history. The triumphs of these great Black figures are triumphs for America. Since the past month has been filled with so many insulting, hurtful and downright damaging effects for Blacks in America, it has been suggested that Black History Month gets a “do-over.” I concur and look forward to celebrating the successes of Black heroes in America and abroad throughout the remainder of the year.
Christina Greer, Ph.D., is an associate professor at Fordham University, the author of “Black Ethnics: Race, Immigration, and the Pursuit of the American Dream,” the co-host of the new podcast FAQ-NYC and the host of The Aftermath and The Counter on Ozy.com.