Celebration Time: Black History Month

Black History Month is here and there's a party goin' on

When I was a kid, Black History Month was very special to me and my family. On the first day of February, Mom pulled an armload of books off the shelf of our home library and displayed them, face out, on top of our Magnavox stereo console. She would then make a visit to my school to show the faculty the right way to celebrate during the next 28 days. “If I don't go over there and do it,” she would say, “it won't happen.” So each year, Mom took it upon herself to create a “Celebrate Black Heroes” bulletin board, a marquee that you couldn't miss when you walked into Watkins Mill Elementary in Gaithersburg, MD. To make the bulletin board special, Mom clipped photographs and illustrations of black notables from Ebony magazine and created a multilayered collage that was enhanced with glittered paper letters and DayGlo poster paints. The entire display was a study in bulletin-board bling and gave new meaning to the term “Black Power.” Dad got into the act, too, by addressing an all-school assembly in our gym. He started off by leading a processional for me and my fellow grade-schoolers that was a tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr. My job was to march at the front of the line carrying a giant photograph of Dr. King, while my classmates and teachers followed behind me. I then stood next to Dad, holding what I called “the Martin sign,” while Dad spoke to the large group. Dad was a very charismatic speaker who engaged everyone immediately by telling us that Martin Luther King, Jr. was a mighty force of a man! As Dad's delivery grew louder and more electric, excitement filled the room. We kids and our teachers left the program buzzing about Dr. King's dream of equality. But by the next day, the thrill was over at school (though it was still alive at home). Soon February ended, and so did the spotlight on African-American achievements. Mom would return to school to dismantle her bulletin board, and I'd say a quiet good-bye to the black heroes who had greeted me as I entered school each morning. When that happened, I felt like I'd lost a friend. It later dawned on me that nobody else's parents were taking such care in promoting the contributions made by African Americans, that my teachers had come to depend on my parents to “make it happen,” and that my classmates weren't as fully invested as I was in the elaborate setup my parents worked hard to prepare. But could I really blame my schoolmates for not being as enthusiastic as my folks and I were? After all, Mom's bulletin board encouraged us to “Celebrate Black Heroes.” To a kid, “celebrate” means balloons, cake, fun, and games. You celebrate a birthday. You celebrate Halloween or winning a championship or the last day of school. But can you really celebrate Harriet Tubman's 19 trips along the Underground Railroad or the courage of Rosa Parks to refuse to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus or Althea Gibson breaking the color barrier in world-class tennis? To an elementary school kid, do these achievements warrant frosting and festivity? In the minds of me and my parents, they did. But somehow that never translated beyond our own family room. Now I'm the mom who offers to make the bulletin board for my kids' school. The good news is that times have changed. More students, teachers, and librarians are aware of African-American History Month and try to give it greater attention. But I still often ask myself, “Do people really celebrate African-American History Month?” Or is it something folks feel obligated to do, so they “celebrate” by displaying a collection of books about notable African Americans and hope that by some magical force of attraction people will pick up the titles and gain a true appreciation of our vast contributions? I can't help thinking that we're missing a great opportunity for young people and ourselves to really celebrate African-American history in a fun, engaging, intriguing way. To do this, I thought it would be helpful to first find out what people's perceptions are about African-American History Month. So I took a random “person on the street” poll, asking people of all ethnicities, ages, social backgrounds, and locales the following questions: “What is African-American History Month?” “What does it mean to you?” “How do you celebrate it?” Their responses ranged from “It's when you focus on all the great things black people have done in the world” to “I have no idea.” Even the headmaster of a private school in Brooklyn, NY, was stumped about African-American History Month and didn't have a clue about what she could do at her school to mark its significance. And those who knew all about Black History Month confessed to not really celebrating it. For anyone who needs a refresher, here's a little background. Black History Month began in 1926, and was originally called “Negro History Week.” It was created by historian Carter G. Woodson to bring national attention to the involvement of black people in America's technological, scientific, and social advancements. Woodson, a Harvard-educated scholar, was discouraged when he discovered there was little mention of African Americans in history textbooks. Even though black women and men produced so many substantial inventions—ranging from the traffic light to the typewriter—only four black inventors have been inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in Akron, OH. Woodson chose the second week of February for Negro History Week because it marks the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, two men whose contributions greatly affected the advancement of African-American people. Negro History Week became Black History Month in 1976, and in recent years has been renamed African-American History Month. The truth is, black history is American history, and it should be celebrated every day of the year. So I'm officially launching my first African-American history party, which will begin in February and last all year long—and you're all invited. As they say in the popular vernacular, “Let's party, y'all!” Here's the game plan. Start from the inside out. First, we need to know what we're celebrating. Within the context of African-American achievements, each of us needs to decide for ourselves what African-American History Month means to us personally, and how we can rejoice in it. This can be done quietly without a lot of outward fanfare. Think of this “inside job” as the party backdrop, something that may not be noticeable to others, but speaks loudly to the heart and soul of African-American History Month's true essence. Like humanitarian Clara “Mother” Hale, ask yourself, “How will I help someone today?” Then go out of your way to be of service to others, with no expectation of being acknowledged. Take the “random acts of kindness” idea seriously. Be selfless. Let Martin Luther King, Jr.'s approach to nonviolence guide your actions. Decide that, from now on, you will practice simple acts of peace. This can be done by zipping your lip when you're tempted to snap at someone. Or, instead of sending a heated email, save it to your drafts' file. Think about the message. Soften its tone. Maybe never send it at all. Get creative. Let's celebrate the innovative contributions of women and men such as film executive Suzanne de Passe and Harlem Renaissance painter Romare Bearden. Now's the time to take a “viral marketing” approach to African-American History Month, starting with the bulletin board idea. We can push glitter and DayGlo to new heights by making it more accessible to more people. At home, school, the library, and at your workplace, create African American–inspired screensavers or Web-site banner ads to remind folks that February is here and it's time to celebrate. On paycheck envelopes, create a stamp that encourages everyone to “Celebrate African-American History!” Party! When restaurateur and media star Barbara Smith launched her entertainment empire and became known as “the black Martha Stewart,” she did it by giving people culturally relevant ways to host parties and other events. Let's follow in Barbara's footsteps. Encourage your school or company to serve healthy African American–inspired treats in its cafeteria or lounge. Or get motivated by educator Mary McLeod Bethune, who used the proceeds from the sales of her sweet potato pies to found the Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute for Negro Girls in Florida. By hosting your own sweet potato pie sale, you can earn money to bring a high-profile African-American author or illustrator to your town to speak at your local library or school. Another great way to celebrate? Have a Goober Bash. Whip up a bunch of peanut butter cookies, and while you're enjoying them, shout the praises of scientist George Washington Carver for his contributions to agricultural science. At your school or public library, host an African-American History Month party, with red velvet cake (a Southern treat) and ice cream, and sing “Happy Birthday” to statesman and abolitionist Frederick Douglass and poet Langston Hughes, both born in February. And since African-American History Month falls during the 100th day of school, make it part of those festivities by coming up with 100 cool facts about African Americans and posting this information prominently. For example, did you know that the electric lamp, telegraph, fountain pen, and method for dry cleaning clothes were all invented by African Americans? And how about Kevin Clash? He's an Emmy Award–winning African-American entertainer, one of the most popular actors on the planet among members of the three- to eight-year-old set, and the voice of Sesame Street's Elmo. Think fireworks. More than 45 years ago, brave six-year-old Ruby Bridges risked her young life to desegregate schools in New Orleans, and she was instrumental in opening our nation's schools to all children. Barrington Irving, a young man who, as a teenager, built an airplane, taught himself to fly, and just last year, traveled around the world in the plane he made with his own hands. Look at our nation's political landscape. Thanks to Barack Obama, we're the closest we've ever come to having a black first family in the White House. Surely these accomplishments are deserving of a parade and some kazoos! So bring on the noise! Lift every voice. In 1900, when poet James Weldon Johnson wrote “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” a song that came to be known as the black national anthem, he wrote it for an Abraham Lincoln birthday celebration at a school in Jacksonville, FL, where Johnson was the principal. The lyrics of the song, which rejoice in overcoming hardship, apply to everybody. Starting today, let's make this song one of the hit-parade tunes sung in our communities. When Barry Gordy founded Motown Records in 1959, his primary purpose was to give people music that made them happy, got them thinking, and left them singing some great songs. So, while everyone is lifting their voices, sponsor a local library, town hall, or school African-American History Month sing-along that includes songs of social relevance by Stevie Wonder, India.Arie, and Marvin Gaye. If done with a solid dose of R&B, your sing-along will rival any production of High School Musical. Are we having fun yet? Sponsor a Black History Bee or an African-American Achievers Auction with keen competition and big prizes that appeal to kids. Want to win some Webkinz or a Wii? Answer this bonus question: Who is believed to be the first African-American female millionaire in the United States? (Hint: It's not Oprah.) It's entrepreneur Madam C. J. Walker. Let's book! Returning to Carter G. Woodson's motivation for creating Black History Week—the lack of information about African Americans in history books—I'm making books a cornerstone of my party. But I want to move them off of the display shelves and put them under readers' noses. You can support black authors and illustrators by making African-American titles required reading all year long. Not required reading like “Hey everybody, it's African-American History Month—time to eat your spinach!” Blech! I mean required reading like, “Want to laugh harder than you've ever laughed in your life? Then read this totally cool and awesome new book by Christopher Paul Curtis.” Or, “Check out Kadir Nelson's latest masterpiece.” Or, “Take a ride to another universe by reading Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu's new fantasy adventure.” Or, “Hey kids, create your own books featuring black characters, and the adventure can be all yours.” So, there you have it. Please come to my party. Or even better, host your own, and invite me. Either way, we'll have a blast!
Andrea Davis Pinkney is Scholastic's vice president, editor at large, and the author of more than 20 books for young people, including Let It Shine: Stories of Black Women Freedom Fighters (Harcourt, 2000), a Coretta Scott King Honor Award–winner.

Be the first reader to comment.

Comment Policy:
  • Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  • Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media.
  • If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.



We are currently offering this content for free. Sign up now to activate your personal profile, where you can save articles for future viewing