In 1926 Carter G. Woodson, an African-American historian, author, journalist, and founder of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (1915), and founder of the academic quarterly, Journal of Negro History (1916), founded the second week in February as Negro History Week. For me, growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, Negro History Week, was one week in the year when we focused on the achievements of Americans of African ancestry – achievement in the arts, sports, science, education, politics, business, religion, community uplift, and other areas of success. Marian Anderson, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois, George Washington Carver, Harriet Tubman, Ralph Bunch, Sammy Davis, Jr., Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Sidney Poitier, Jackie Robinson, Dorothy Dandridge, Father George Clements, Father Rollins Lambert, Bishop Harold Perry, and so many other individuals living and dead were lifted up with pride as if to say “Because they did we can.”
In my childhood Negro History Week, which in 1976 was expanded to Black History Month, served to negate the inferiority complex that had gripped the psyche of Black people. Achievement was not just for the purpose of personal success or even the uplift of a race; it was also proof, to others and ourselves, that we are equal.
Now in my sixties, I can add so many other names to that long list of Black achievers, most notably President Barack Obama. For me today, that list is no longer as much a body of proof than it is a legacy. My pride is less to negate an internal sense of inferiority and more to give praise to God for giving us such bright lights in our dark history as a nation. I suppose that I have evolved as have so many of my generation.
Yet, today internalized racism still grips the psyche of so many African-Americans. Living conditions for African-Americans on many levels lag that of White Americans. While many Whites have evolved beyond their “burden” of internalized superiority, there are still many who consciously and subconsciously see themselves as the primary race for whom our nation’s founders intended those inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Racism in America, from the beginning of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade in the 16th Century to today, did a number on all of us. While we have come a long way since slavery, Jim Crow, and legal apartheid in our country, we still have a long way to go.
For Catholic people of faith who uphold the dignity of every human person, what can this February focus on African-American History do for us? It can help us all appreciate the worthiness and giftedness of all people regardless of race, economic class, sex, and sexual orientation. It can also help us appreciate that within those categories there are unique gifts that add to the richness of life in community. We are more when we are inclusive.
I take great pride in being African-American. That pride isn’t to inflate my sense of self or to boast; rather it is to share with others what God has done despite our nation’s ignoble history. African-Americans, especially during Black History Month, are a prophetic people who point us all toward God. And that’s what we all celebrate.
For more information on Black History Month visit the Office for Black Catholic’s website, www.blackcatholicchicago.org.