So far this Black History Month, I have not reflected on the lives and accomplishments of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X or Rosa Parks. The triumphs of Jesse Owens, Shirley Chisholm and Garrett Morgan have gone completely unremembered. Even the president’s recent inauguration has not come to mind.
Instead, the lives I have remembered are Troy Davis, Trayvon Martin and the countless people who have died as a result of Chicago’s notorious gang violence.
It may seem like odd timing to reflect on such terrible moments, especially when the purpose of Black History Month is to acknowledge and celebrate the progress and contributions that African Americans and their ancestors have made not only to America, but to the world.
However, don’t their lives and deaths, which fueled protests for law reform and reflection on the state of racism in our country, count as black history? They do.
The real issue surrounding Black History Month is that nothing else is taught besides the good stuff: the speeches, marches and the individuals who made them possible. Understandably, the greatness of our civil rights leaders and even our prominent black figures of today cannot be appreciated unless the historical context is understood.
No child can truly understand why Dr. King and Medgar Evers are so revered unless they have a firm understanding of the cultural framework of those periods, including Jim Crow laws and the social and economic conditions they created for African Americans.
But by only highlighting the progress made during the Civil Rights Movement, educators are delivering the message to students that the worst has come to pass and that the struggle for social, economic and political equality has been over for years. Stories like Troy Davis’ and Sean Bell’s prove that the struggle still exists.
So why is it that during Black History Month the struggle is not acknowledged? Why are these stories of current African-American struggles not being shared in classrooms or making it into the books about black history?
If Black History Month is about celebrating greatness and progress, then indeed we should. We should honor our African-American inventors, politicians and social activists whose progress in their respective fields provided opportunities for future generations. Though, in celebrating, we should also recognize that we cannot continue to celebrate the same accomplishments.
The only way to celebrate new milestones in black history is by recognizing the struggles we still face as a race and overcoming them. What issues are left to tackle? What burdens are African Americans still bearing? Surely, not every problem can be solved.
On the other hand, if we never address the headlines and issues that are making American history and, indeed, black history, then we are delaying our own progress.
Black History Month is as much a time of reflection as it is celebration. So as educators, students and everyone else who engages in this period reflects on how far African Americans have come, we should also consider how far we have yet to go.
To do so, we must consider the good, the bad and also the ugly, so that we are not merely appreciating those who took it upon themselves to make a change, but also thinking of ways to do the same.