February is Black History Month. In 1926, Carter G. Woodson started Negro History Week, which then grew into Black History Month in order to highlight the achievements of African-Americans. Some have pondered whether we still need Black History Month with the election of the nation’s first black president, Barack Obama.
I find it amusing that many folks, including some black folks, want to use this one achievement as an example of why we no longer need Black History Month, or discussions about race and racism. I would argue that this is an example of why we need Black History Month: so that we can continue to learn more about black culture, which is in fact American culture.
In the intercultural communications course I teach, we learn that the more you learn about others, the more you learn about yourself. This is because learning about others highlights our differences and similarities, thereby reinforcing or challenging how you see yourself relative to how you are perceived by others. This is applicable to all cultures, whether you’re Irish, Italian, Jewish, Polish, Chinese, Japanese, Dutch, South African, Senegalese, West Indian — you name it, and this idea is relevant to your group.
Eliminating Black History Month may eliminate our motivation to learn more about another racial group. In this instance, black folks resided on the margins of society and history books and were sometimes completely excluded, which is how Negro History Week evolved. This experience is not specific to African-Americans in this country — think about women, poor whites, gays and lesbians and other ethnic minorities. Black History Month gives all of us, including black folks (many of who know very little about our history), an opportunity to learn more about a specific group and themselves in the process.
If I had stopped reading about Black History Month, I would have missed out on learning about Henrietta Lacks, a poor tobacco farmer, who died of cervical cancer, but whose cells were used to develop the polio vaccine, leading to important advances like in vitro fertilization, gene mapping, and cancer research. Her cells have been bought and sold by the billions, for which neither she nor her estate received a penny. In fact, she never knew or consented for doctors at Johns Hopkins to take samples of her tissues, which helped launch a multibillion dollar industry.
Henrietta Lacks is buried in an unmarked grave in Clover, Va. I learned this from an article entitled “Do We Still Need Black History Month,” by Cindy Barnes-Thomas. This article led me to conduct my own research and come across a book titled The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot, a white woman who brings this black woman’s story to life. Click here to read more.
This article originally appeared in its entirety in Creative Loafing, where Nsenga Burton serves as cultural critic.