Written by Stephanie Monteilh, Escalation Representative at PRN
The national recognition and celebration of Black History Month has been a long time coming.
When I was a teenager in the 70s, I was a member of our local Junior NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) Chapter. I, along with other young African Americans in our area, met at Shiloh Baptist Church in Easton, PA regularly. We discussed Black History and were part of the petition to make Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday the national holiday we now celebrate today.
At that time, we celebrated what was then known as “Black History Week,” later to become what is now “Black History Month.” Churches, schools and community centers celebrated with plays, readings, in-depth history lessons and spoken-word symposiums from the likes of Poet Laureate Maya Angelou, Nikki Giovanni and Gwendolyn Brooks — all of whom I have had the honor of meeting and hearing speak. It was a special time to learn of the rich history of peoples of African heritage in this country.
One of my favorite ways to celebrate in school was to decorate our library’s main display window. My mother and other friends and family members would loan artwork, jewelry and prized souvenirs from the African Diaspora. Pictures would be taken, and articles written in our school newspaper.
Unsatisfied with the scarcity of African American history in our lesson books, I was encouraged by my mother to “teach” myself and write essays on Black history. Countless hours were spent in libraries devouring books highlighting the history of our heroes and “she-roes” in African American culture, past and present. From Harriet Tubman to Frederick Washington, W.E.B. DuBois and on, it was eye-opening and exciting to my young mind. I developed a voracious appetite for reading and learning. Many of the essays I wrote at home were later used to satisfy history and English literature classes and were recited at church and community functions.
Especially impressive to me were the stories of Barbara Charline Jordan, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Texas’s 18th district, and Shirley Anita Chisholm, an American politician, educator and author. In 1968, she became the first Black woman elected to the United States Congress, representing New York’s 12th congressional district for seven terms from 1969 to 1983. In the 1972 United States presidential election, she became the first African American candidate for a major party’s nomination for President of the United States, and the first woman to run for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination.
My dearest figure in history was and still is Maya Angelou. Her autobiography, documented in a series of books beginning with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings developed an ongoing passion for the written and spoken word, and encouraged me to begin writing my own stories and poems.
The excerpt below best describes the beginnings of this important American Holiday:
“The origins of Black History Month lay in early 20th-century historian Carter G. Woodson’s desire to spotlight the accomplishments of Black Americans. Mainstream historians left out Black Americans from the narrative of American history up until the 1960s, and Woodson worked his entire career to correct this blinding oversight. His creation of Negro History Week in 1926 paved the way for the establishment of Black History Month in 1976. Black History Month is observed annually in February in the United States. The 2021 theme is “The Black Family: Representation, Identity, and Diversity. . . In 1976, as the U.S. was celebrating its bicentennial, the ASALH expanded the traditional week-long celebration of Black history to a month, and Black History Month was born.”
That same year, President Gerald Ford urged Americans to observe Black History Month, but it was President Carter who officially recognized Black History Month in 1978. With the federal government’s blessing, Black History Month became a regular event in American schools.
Today, one of the ways I celebrate Black (African American) History Month is to share stories of important historical figures daily for my younger relatives to read and enjoy. I will also post that person’s photo as my profile picture for a day or so. It is vital to keep these lessons alive and viable for all children, as the African American story is American history, and ignorance breeds intolerance.