By Linda Lockhart, Beacon PIN analyst
Each February, students and scholars of all ages have opportunities to focus on important people and events in the history of the African diaspora.
Black History Month has been observed annually in the United States and Canada. The remembrance has its roots in 1926, when historian Carter G. Woodson called for the observance of “Negro History Week.” Woodson chose February because it marked the birthdays of two Americans who greatly influenced the lives and social condition of African Americans: President Abraham Lincoln, who was born on Feb. 12, 1809; and abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass, whose exact date of birth in February 1818 is unknown.
For some, February is a time to celebrate accomplishments of people who were ignored in the history books of previous generations. Others, however, question whether the time for this form of segregation is over. The Beacon used the Public Insight Network to ask what Black History month means in 2012.
Jeanette Hencken responded that she believes it is important for all people, regardless of race, to learn about African Americans and all who are not white males.
“Our textbooks give very little recognition to the part that these people played in contributions to our world,” she wrote. “There is even less discussion of why history is overwhelmingly [about] white males. It is very important for our young people to realize that there is a reason why so many women and men of color were not included in discoveries and contributions to our lives.”
Hencken is white. She teaches chemistry and forensic science at Webster Groves High School. “Having a specific observance time helps remind me that I need to talk with my students about these issues,” she wrote. “It is very easy to get caught up in the need to teach the required standards and forget to teach them about the everyday things that are important for them to know about.”
In February, Hencken, 52, talks with her students about the difficulties faced by men and women of color who wanted to be scientists.
“My students and I talk about the overwhelming number of white males who contributed to our understanding of the atom when we learn about models of the atom at the beginning of the year. I also share with them the few scientists I am aware of who were female or African American who contributed, but really were not supported or given credited early in the history of science.”
To Diane Lynn, the history of African Americans is important “because we are several generations of humans who have been cut off from their ancestors.”
“This country should have a month in which we learn, either through books or television, about different cultures or ways of life of the ethnic groups that make up this United States.”
Lynn, of St. Louis, is 52, identifies herself as black. She wrote that she attends ethnic festivals held throughout the year and reads National Geographic magazine to learn about people of various ethnic groups. She also enjoys books and foreign films that teach about other cultures and races.
Joy Moll, of Kirkwood, is interested in historical events. She wrote that she believes African-American history is important because it is American history. But Moll doesn’t not believe it is necessary, for her personally, to hold special observances at prescribed times of the year.
Moll, who is white and was born in 1962, facilitates a book club in Kirkwood that focuses on books about race in America. “For us, every month is black history month,” she wrote.
Carol Wright wrote that she could remember first when she first heard about “the troubling history of African Americans. I think that I only began to understand the depth of it with the historic crossing of the bridge in Selma, Ala.” in 1965. The event was a turning point in the American civil rights movement when white police attacked civil rights marchers — most of whom where African American — as they attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The marchers were trying to reach the state capital in Montgomery to push for equal voting rights.
From left, Carol Wright’s nephews, Graham Wright and Satya Thiel, and her grandson Brandon Becherer-Bailey.
“Until the history of all American groups is recognized, I think the observances will remain important,” Wright wrote.
“I belong to a multiracial family and it is interesting to me that when I take grandchildren who happen to be black/Caucasian, they often say to me, ‘Grandma, lots of people look at us.’ We are very far from a ‘post-racial’ society” wrote Wright, 69, who identifies herself as Caucasian. “I was never very aware of racism until I was in college and after college during the civil rights movement. I worked in Mississippi teaching adults to read in the late ’60s and was appalled to see how people lived (but yet had such a deep love and open heart for others). I know that I was quite naive at that time, but it was the beginning of my understanding. I took part in the Selma-Montgomery march and in the picketing of the Veiled Prophet Parade — I learned a lot through these exposures and never have been able to understand the hate that exists.”
June Green, of Tampa, Fla., is a historian who has specialized in African-American research. To her, “it is important to set aside a prescribed time to honor African Americans. We set aside a prescribed time to honor white Americans, such as Abraham Lincoln, Christopher Columbus and other white Americans who have contributed to this country’s history.”
Green, 60, identifies herself as black. She wrote that she participates in events each February “to remember Black-American contributions.” She wrote that she has learned about black history “from my parents, from my early childhood church lessons, from my college professors, and from reading books, and documents about black Americans on my on.”
Contact Beacon news editor and PIN analyst Linda Lockhart. This report appeared first in the St. Louis Beacon on Jan. 31, 2012.