Photograph by Avel Chukyanov via Unsplash
On celebrating Black History Month
February 6, 2024
It’s critical that Black History Month is observed throughout the nation, especially in the Black church — the bastion of African American culture.
The 45th president is out of office, but the insidious residue of his racism and white supremacy is still very much present before our eyes. There’s no denying that the former president and his extremist MAGA Republican allies and supporters have rolled back years of progress in the areas of racial justice and equality in America.
To its credit, the MAGA movement successfully advanced a substantial portion of its pernicious agenda. Its glaring failure was the inability to keep the former president in the White House for a second term.
The former president is now aggressively campaigning for a chance to be our nation’s chief executive again—despite the fact he is charged with 91 criminal offenses in four criminal cases, and is the only former president in history who has been criminally indicted. His charges are related to failed attempts to overturn the results of the 2020 election, election interference in Georgia, falsifying business records in New York, and taking and mishandling classified documents after leaving the White House.
In January 2021, the world watched in horror and disbelief as an angry, violent, and armed mob stormed the U.S. Capitol. People died. People were seriously injured. The coup failed, but many GOP lawmakers and MAGA Trump supporters continue to brazenly deny, minimize, and normalize what occurred that day at the Capitol.
What we are witnessing is historical revisionism from a swath of society that suggests publicly that January 6, 2021 was a non-event. The Republican National Committee has gone so far as to describe the attempted insurrection as “legitimate political discourse.” If current events are so shamelessly rewritten before our eyes in the present, we can only imagine the magnitude of the Black narratives that have been distorted, rewritten, or removed from the pages of America’s history.
During Black History Month, we attempt to set the record straight — balance the lopsided scales — by telling the stories of African American contributions to America’s history. We see in the New Testament that Jesus tells his disciples that it’s both empowering and liberating when truth is known. At one point, Jesus says, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:31-32).
Dr. Carter G. Woodson understood the need to preserve, study, and share the rich history of African Americans. The African American historian, educated at Harvard, said in 1926, “If a race has no history, if it has no worth-while tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated.” This is why he founded the Association for the Study of African American Life and History in 1915 (formerly the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History). In 1926, Woodson’s ASALH established the first “Negro History Week” as the second week in February. He picked February because it included the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. Woodson was passionate about sharing Black history with all ages, particularly children. He felt it should be taught in their school curriculum year-round.
President Gerald R. Ford extended the week-long observance into a month February 10, 1976 with the following message: “In the Bicentennial year of our Independence, we can review with admiration the impressive contributions of black Americans to our national life and culture.
“One hundred years ago, to help highlight these achievements, Dr. Carter G. Woodson founded the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History. We are grateful to him today for his initiative, and we are richer for the work of his organization.
“Freedom and the recognition of individual rights are what our Revolution was all about. They were ideals that inspired our fight for Independence: ideals that we have been striving to live up to ever since. Yet it took many years before these ideals became a reality for black citizens.
“The last quarter-century has finally witnessed significant strides in the full integration of black people into every area of national life. In celebrating Black History Month, we can take satisfaction from this recent progress in the realization of the ideals envisioned by our Founding Fathers. But, even more than this, we can seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.
“I urge my fellow citizens to join me in tribute to Black History Month and to the message of courage and perseverance it brings to all of us.”
We continue to honor, as Ford said, “the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans” with every Black History Month observance — in church, school, community and in the home.
Woodson’s ASALH sets the agenda for the national commemoration of Black History Month. This year’s agenda, “African Americans and the Arts,” examines the rich history and life of African American arts and artisans, noting that “Artistic and cultural movements such as the New Negro, Black Arts, Black Renaissance, hip-hop, and Afrofuturism, have been led by people of African descent and set the standard for popular trends around the world.”
In a sense, it’s as though our national neighborhood is invited to a celebratory colloquy on the African American cultural influence in the humanities. This includes visual and performing arts, literature, fashion, folklore, language, film, music, architecture, and culinary arts.
“Black history is American history and American history can’t be told without spotlighting the very significant contributions of so many Black Americans,” argued Dr. Jonathan C. Augustine, national chaplain of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc., the first intercollegiate Greek-letter fraternity established for African American men, and author of Called to Reconciliation: How the Church Can Model Justice, Diversity, and Inclusion, in a conversation with the author of the article.
Award-winning journalist Barbara Hamm Lee said, in a conversation with the author, that Black History Month is more important than ever because of the growing threat to eliminate Black history from school curriculum. Hamm Lee is executive producer and host of “Another View,” a WHRO Public Media weekly radio talk show that addresses contemporary issues from a Black perspective. She explains, “It is imperative that we tell the full story of our history in this country. We cannot move forward if we do not know from whence we came.”
This is an ideal time for churches to focus ministry programming on the too often neglected area of Black history. The preaching, music, worship, liturgical dance, teaching, stewardship, and evangelistic outreach should unapologetically and explicitly speak intrinsically and intently from and to the Black experience.
As I shared with the congregation that I serve in Norfolk, VA — a Black Baptist church organized in 1884 by formerly enslaved African Americans — Black History Month is a celebration of those who’ve impacted not just the country but the world with activism and achievement. We honor the ancestors!
Just as God told Joshua to set up 12 stones as a memorial of Israel’s deliverance, we, too, must tell succeeding generations our salvific stories.
We need to hear the uplifting stories of the past and the not-too-distant past, like poet Maya Angelou, actress Cicely Tyson, baseball’s Hank Aaron, Secretary of State Colin Powell, basketball great Kobe Bryant, mathematician Katherine Johnson, publisher Earl Graves Sr., Congressman John Lewis, Rev. C.T. Vivian and Dr. Henry Mitchell, actor Chadwick Boseman, coach John Thompson, Mayor David Dinkins, and country western artist Charlie Pride.
We need to hear the stirring stories of the Norfolk 17, the Montford Point Marines, the Tuskegee Airmen, and the brilliant Black women mathematicians at NASA who helped fuel America’s achievements in space in 1961.
We need to hear the impactful stories of contemporary, homegrown history-makers and change agents. For us in Hampton Roads, that includes folk like Pharrell Williams and Missy Elliott, Gabby Douglas and Michael Vick, Congressman Bobby Scott, VA House Speaker Don Scott, VA Senator L. Louise Lucas, Pusha T, Wanda Sykes, and comedian Jay Pharoah. We need to hear the inspiring story of NFL Hall of Famer Bruce Smith, number 78 — the outstanding retired defensive end who holds the NFL record of 200 sacks. Smith, a Norfolk native, remains rooted in faith, family, and community — in his hometown.
Greatness runs through our veins!
That’s the history some people don’t want to get out. They don’t want the story of a strong, resilient people to get out! The Apostle Paul was correct: “We are afflicted in every way but not crushed, perplexed but not driven to despair, persecuted but not forsaken, struck down but not destroyed…” (2 Corinthians 4:8-9).
I believe Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was accurate when he quoted William Cullen Bryant in his 1961 speech to the Fellowship of the Concerned: “Truth crushed to the earth will rise again.”[i]
In that same address, King went on to cite the words of James Russell Lowell:
Truth forever on the scaffold
Wrong forever on the throne
Yet that scaffold sways the future
And behind the dim unknown standeth God
Within the shadows keeping watch above his own.[ii]
It’s our awesome responsibility to share the story.
Woodson wrote in The Journal of Negro History in April 1927: “What we need is not a history of selected races or nations, but the history of the world void of national bias, race hate, and religious prejudice. There should be no indulgence in undue eulogy of the Negro. The case of the Negro is well taken care of when it is shown how he has influenced the development of civilization.”
There was, and still is, an urgency to publicly proclaim and celebrate the achievements, challenges and triumphs of Black folk. This month, and beyond, I encourage enthusiastic participation in activities, studies, and ceremonies that will increase awareness of our treasured African American history.
Rev. Dr. Glenn E. Porter Sr. is senior pastor at Queen Street Baptist Church, Norfolk, Va. He is author of “Journey With Jesus Through Lent” (Judson Press, 2017). This article is based on a forthcoming Judson Press book, tentatively titled Journey With Jesus Through Black History Month.