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PILLAI: Black History Month serves as reminder to reignite discussion


Column: Unboxed

Observed every February, the tradition of Black History Month continues to attract controversy from multiple angles. 

Sometimes, a brazen individual attempts to exploit the occasion to honor mainly white historical figures: By “brazen individual,” I mean Wisconsin Rep. Scott Allen (R-Wis.) in 2019. On the other hand, there is a perspective worth considering — the idea that Black history should be the subject of year-round recognition rather than a month-long celebration. For instance, actor Morgan Freeman notably said on "60 Minutes," “I don’t want a Black History Month. Black history is American history.”

Freeman is right in that Black history and American history are inseparable: The latter cannot exist without the former. The National Museum of African American History and Culture, situated in the heart of our nation’s capital, uses a masterful technique to illustrate this concept. 

As visitors descend into the lower levels of the museum on the elevator, significant dates from past centuries scroll by on the wall of the shaft until guests reach their first destination: the 1400s. An elevator, a virtual time machine, transports visitors to an earlier period while helping them visualize the breadth of Black history in America. In this way, the museum reveals the first chapters of the African diaspora, which predate Christopher Columbus’s voyage across the Atlantic Ocean. 

This act of revelation reclaims the historical timeline that has mainly focused on white people and showcases the stories of Black people, or the quintessential American story. 

Although we should reflect on Black history throughout the year, it is crucial that Black History Month remains a part of the calendar to continue a longstanding tradition. In 1926, historian Carter G. Woodson first established “Negro History Week” on the second week of February, which contains Frederick Douglass's and Abraham Lincoln’s birthdays. 

Former President Gerald Ford expanded upon Woodson’s initiative, designating February as Black History Month in 1976. Not only did these actions recognize Black people’s contributions to every aspect of history, culture and humanity, but they also encouraged Americans to remain cognizant of those contributions throughout the rest of the year. Sadly, this is often not the case. 

Today, we do not give this month the full respect that it deserves. We hail national heroes, such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, while neglecting to mention the countless other Black people who shaped the world. When we do recognize these individuals, we flatten them into two-dimensional figures when we make vague references to their legacies in speeches and paste their portraits onto walls, which we walk past without a second glance. 

To avoid difficult debates on race and tolerance, we laud diversity in the broadest terms possible. And in the middle of it all, many of us get to skip work or class to celebrate the birthdays of former Presidents Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, two Founding Fathers who were also slaveholders. 

Instead of creating a definition for Black History Month that suits our own tastes, all Americans should recognize that this month is an opportunity for celebration and reflection. 

For example, ABC’s "The View" uses each show to spotlight influential Black people from all sectors, ranging from sculptor Edmonia Lewis to industrial designer Charles Alfred Harrison Jr. As we celebrate these individuals’ accomplishments, we should discuss Black history in both a historical and current context. 

Plenty of conversations during this month revolve around the likes of Douglass and Harriet Tubman, who fought for freedom as slaves. Now, many still see slavery as a distant relic and refuse to examine its long-lasting effects that endure today. 

To counter this cycle of avoidance, it is important that we continue the conversations that these historical figures started by discussing issues such as the study of reparations for Black people, according to the H.R. 40. It is not easy to find a balance between celebration and honest reflection, but it is worth the effort to reconcile the two. 

Moreover, the responsibility of remembering Black history cannot belong to Black people alone. Other ethnic groups need to pay heed to this month and take this opportunity to realize the impact Black history has had on their own lives. As an Asian American woman, I realize that I owe my freedoms to the leaders of the civil rights movement and those who spearheaded the revolutions and protests that came before the movement. 

Due to their work, I am legally protected by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 against discrimination on the basis of race, sex, color, religion and national origin. As an avid reader and writer, I look up to authors such as Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jacqueline Woodson, whose works cemented my love of language. 

Black History Month is often an annual reminder to reignite a discussion of topics that focus on the Black experience. It is my hope that we keep that discourse alive this February and every month of the year. 

Preanka Pillai is a Rutgers Business School first-year majoring in marketing and business analytics and information technology. Her column, "Unboxed," runs on alternate Thursdays.

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