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Black History Month: Where do we go from here?

Marques Camp | Monday, March 1, 2010

This column was written and approved by the executive board of the Black Student Association. Its members include Marvin Langston, Danielle Keller, Brittany Suggs, Raymond Umipig, Cedric Joint, Courtney Haynes, Christopher Moore and Marques Camp.


Eighty-four years ago, African American historian Carter G. Woodson founded the initial “Negro History Week,” to be celebrated in the second week of February in remembrance and celebration of the diverse and dynamic history of the African Diaspora in the United States. Until then this history had been sometimes buried, but most often omitted, from the standard tales of American history. Intended to coincide with the birthdays of two prominent figures in this history, Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, this one week has since become an entire month in celebration of the black community.

During the past month members of the Black community at Notre Dame came together to create programming celebrating this history — we organized “Black Collar Workers,” a panel on labor and race in the United States; the Black Cultural Arts Council hosted their annual talent showcase Black Coffeehouse and Shades of Ebony brought acclaimed artist Dawn Okoro and well-known blogger Patrice Yursik to campus for a workshop on beauty and self-image with African American high school students from South Bend, among other events.

We would also like to take the time to mention a display in the Hesburgh Library that we constructed to memorialize the history of Black people in the arts, entitled, “Negros, Coloreds, African Americans and Blacks in the Arts.” We have received quite a few criticisms and concerns about the title, many expressing that such emotionally-charged and culturally-incendiary language conjures up ghosts of slavery, racism and Jim Crow, and that it is not faithful to the kind of identity that future generations of the Black community hopes to build for itself.

We would like to express, however, that we aimed for the title to make a broader point about the history of black citizens in the United States — a commentary on the perseverance and success of the Black community throughout history. It is certainly ironic that racial categories throughout history have seen dramatic significant linguistic transformations, perhaps as an attempt to reflect politically correct cultural sensibilities. Black citizens in the United States have been Negros, they have been Coloreds, they have been Niggers, they have been Afro-Americans, they have been African Americans, they have been Blacks. Yet throughout this roulette of cultural categorization the internal identity of the Black community has never changed. While the names changed, the community remained exactly the same — fighting for abolition, crusading for women’s suffrage, rewriting history books, redefining science, breaking sporting color lines, becoming President of the United States — this is a community that has been a prominent co-author to American history.

The very idea of Black History Month has been criticized by some, especially within the Black community, of trivializing the importance of the contributions of Black Americans, of making them merely supporting actors in the story of American history by setting aside a mere month for celebration (the shortest one, at that). Without Woodson’s deep passion and concern for history, however, the great and vast accomplishments of the black community may still be buried in the footnotes of the great American story. Though these contributions from the Black community have risen to the consciousness of most Americans the past 84 years, we need to move far beyond thinking of Blacks as contributors in the abstract. They are as real, and as immediate, as all of the hands of history — all races, all colors, all creeds.   

One might wonder why we say all this at the end, rather than the beginning, of Black History Month. We do so because February is only the beginning of the conversation, not the entirety of it. Though we as a nation, and as students of history, are light years ahead in our knowledge of Black history compared to where we were in 1926, we still have chapters upon chapters to brush up on and volumes upon volumes to write. As the question of how we as a nation have got here becomes less of a primary focus, perhaps the most important question of all will come to the forefront: Where do we go from here?


Marques Camp can be contacted at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.