Black History Month
by Lucius S.A. Bowen IV, Library Associate
Originally published by Columbia Daily Tribune.
Celebration of Black History Month began in the United States in February 1926. It was launched by historian Carter Woodson as “Negro History Week,” and it gradually expanded to a monthlong observance that also commemorated the February birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln.
Black American history is rooted in the institution of slavery. For centuries, Africans were shipped to the Americas and used as a commodity. Oliver Horton’s “Slavery and the Making of America” (Oxford University Press, 2005) provides a chronological overview of slavery in the United States, from its beginnings through the Civil War and Reconstruction. The book also describes the economic, political and social ramifications of slavery in the country at large.
“African-American Firsts: Famous, Little-known and Unsung Triumphs of Blacks in America” (Dafina Books, 2009) by Joan Potter is an excellent source of black American achievement. Readers learn who was the first black woman to enlist in the U.S. Army — Missourian Cathay Williams, the first black American to become selected as a Rhodes scholar — Alain Locke — and many other milestones.
“Black America: A Photographic Journey: Past to Present” (Thunder Bay Press, 2002) by Marcia Smith chronologically displays images of black American life. Among them are an arresting photograph of a slave badly whipped by his overseer, civil rights activists riding interstate buses in 1966 and Venus Williams at Wimbledon.
Although oppression created much tragedy, black Americans have found many ways to express themselves with art, literature and music, such as R&B, rap and hip-hop. Justin Bua’s “The Legends of Hip-Hop” (Harper Design, 2011) profiles and paints 50 key figures from hip-hop culture, including Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmaster Flash, President Barack Obama and Jay-Z. This book will be greatly appreciated by those who follow popular culture, but it also serves as a fun introduction for people unfamiliar with the genre. Musicians such as James Brown, Marvin Gaye and Nina Simone transformed the pressures of society into meaningful music. Their celebrity status served as a tool to inspire the masses to openly question their oppressors. Denise Sullivan documents this revolutionary period in American history with her book “Keep on Pushing: Black Power Music from Blues to Hip-Hop” (Lawrence Hill Books, 2011).
Comedy also can reflect social upheaval and bring solidarity to communities. Comedians Hadjii, Steve Harvey and Tyler Perry have written humorous books about their experiences. Some works detail aspects of their childhood and personal life; others provide social commentary, even self-help. Hadjii’s book, “Don’t Let My Mama Read This: A Southern Fried Memoir” (Harlem Moon, 2008), is the story of a kid growing up in the middle-class suburbs of the American South during the 1980s and early 1990s. The author does not just pen a “clichéd story of oppression.” Instead, he uses his storytelling gift to portray a world of hope and innocence, as perceived through a young person’s eyes. “Don’t Make a Black Woman Take Off Her Earrings: Madea’s Uninhibited Commentaries on Love and Life” (Riverhead Books, 2007) lets Perry’s fast-talking, no-nonsense alter-ego take on America at large. Madea — short for “mother dear” — discusses aging, family life and the nation’s general welfare. She also offers insight on what life was like during the civil rights movement and shares her memories of involvement with the Black Panther Party.
Archival materials reflecting the black experience might inspire some and shock others, but in any case, they ensure history is not forgotten or repeated. “The African American Family Album” (Oxford University Press, 1995) by Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler uses personal histories, autobiographies, slave narratives and other original documents to paint a vivid picture of life in medieval Africa, in Africa during the slave trade and of the lives of slaves and former slaves in the United States. Complementing the excerpts from primary sources are a rich mix of period black-and-white photographs and historical reproductions.
“Legacy: Treasures of Black History” (National Geographic, 2006) is an amazing collection of photographs, artifacts, illustrations and essays portraying black history from the slave trade through current times. The images include posters of runaway slaves, rare daguerreotypes of Frederick Douglass and other prominent blacks, Black Panther posters, NAACP membership buttons from the 1960s and more. Also published here is Langston Hughes’ poem “I, Too, Sing America” — a perfect illustration of the conflicted feelings blacks experienced after the end of World War I: pride for being an American and shame for being a second-class citizen.
Sometimes autobiographies, biographies and memoirs can offer more information to a reader than a collection of excerpts and photographs. One example is Oprah Winfrey’s biography “Oprah” by Kitty Kelley (Crown Publishers, 2010). This page-turner provides an objective perspective — and shocking revelations — on the media mogul’s rise to fame.
Being black in America still comes with a lot of costs. Although times have changed, there still is work to be done. Black History Month isn’t just important for black Americans. This commemoration should resound for all Americans — for it serves as an appeal for racial equality and the road to its achievement.