Em-URGE-ing Voices

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History may be a study of the past, but its importance lies in the present.

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February 27, 2024

February is Black History Month, which means many people, organizations, and companies are highlighting Black voices and telling their stories. Depending on your perspective, this can manifest in different ways. For many people, this means taking a step back and amplifying Black perspectives or highlighting their stories. Classrooms, workplaces, and even businesses are spending extra time to, at the very least, acknowledge the impact of Black people in American history. As someone that is not Black, I can’t speak for their experiences, but I do know that expanding the space available for marginalized communities is a much overdue task but can have varying levels of success. For nearly the past 50 years, the United States has celebrated the contributions, stories, and resilience of Black people within our history. Highlighting the accomplishments and contributions of Black people not only uplifts a historically marginalized group, but shows Americans a more complete picture of our country’s history. 

Regardless of personal identity, this month raises a question of “Why history?” There are plenty of people in this era that deserve to be recognized, and oftentimes these people are the focus of campaigns or conversation. This month could be focused on the modern examples of influential Black folks, and this is an important aspect of how people honor Black History Month. However the historical aspect of this month should not be downplayed. Centering history during Black History Month is one of the best ways to ensure that the country moves forward instead of back. In my experience, most people think of history as the study or knowledge of static dates and events. While this is part of our basic understanding of the past, history is much more than that. Beyond the surface of seemingly boring facts and people, it is an analysis of times before our own that allows historians of all skill levels to explore what changes in the past led us to our present.

In 1926, historian and author Carter G. Woodson declared the second week in February to be dedicated to African-American history. As a Black man fighting for a place in the white-dominated American Historical Association and academia as a whole, he saw how overlooked and actively suppressed African American history was. It became his personal goal to expand Black history into mainstream curriculums that had been ignoring large swaths of America’s history. The week he chose deliberately fell over the birthdays of two influential figures for African-American history, Abraham Lincoln and Fredrick Douglass. For decades, this work was not acknowledged on a wide scale, but in 1970 students and faculty at Kent State, Ohio decided to honor the whole month of February as Black History Month. By 1976, the government had made it a federal observance. There is yet a question of why history still needs to be centered this month. History is expansive and affects each aspect of our lives, but put simply- history must be understood in order to understand the present. The current discrimination faced by Black people in America did not sprout up in a vacuum and does not have a single root cause. This makes it difficult to combat on an individual and a systemic level, but understanding America’s history of racism is one of the main tools we have at our disposal. By understanding the roots of our issues, we can more effectively cut them out. The inverse of this is also true. 

Because of systemic racism, Black contributions to our society are covered up, co-opted, or ignored in favor of a white narrative. By uplifting stories of Black people throughout history, we better understand the history of America, and can appreciate the benefits of our current world. Black History Month also gives us the opportunity to decenter white people in a major way. There are countless times throughout American history where white Americans are absent completely, if not the antagonists, and by highlighting these moments, we can strengthen the power of Black activists today. The relationship between Black people and reproductive justice is one example of Black people facing unique issues and taking charge in fixing them. The term ‘reproductive justice’ was coined by Black women looking to change the framework of how people discussed reproductive rights as a whole. They saw it did not adequately address systemic issues that disrupted the narrative of personal choice, which was assumed to apply to all women equally, when in fact reproductive issues affected people of all genders differently depending on factors such as race and class.Without historical context, our work cannot be as effective to deconstruct harmful systems, but by utilizing historical knowledge, we can take care to not repeat mistakes made in the past and instead follow the paths set by those who came before us.