John Jea, a section from the cover picture of The Life, History, and Unparalleled Sufferings of John Jea, the African Preacher, compiled and written by John Jae (Portsea, around 1800), digital print of the original document. Courtesy of the Rare Books and Manuscript Library
Almost a century ago, historian Carter G. Woodson conceived Negro History Week to educate people about African American contributions to the United States. In 1976, not long after the era of civil rights and black power movements, the renamed week was extended to a month to further highlight and celebrate black Americans. What does Black History Month represent in 2021, with protests against police brutality last summer following the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement?
Here are four Columbia faculty members' reflections on the significance of Black History Month today:
Accepting Black History to Understand the United States
Farah Jasmine Griffin, Chair, Department of African American and African Diaspora Studies and Professor of English and Comparative Literature. Photo credit: Eileen Barroso
Now, Black History Month remains relevant more than ever because it allows us time to learn and reflect on how African American history highlights the ideals and failures of the US democracy experiment. Black people have campaigned for freedom and equality because of their social movements and political and cultural traditions since the nation was founded. And they have often expressed a greater commitment to democratic principles than many of their fellow citizens. As such, they have tried to improve a nation that depended on them without protecting them and giving them the full benefits of citizenship. There is no complete understanding of the United States without considering the importance of black history.
- Farah Jasmine Griffin, Chair, Department of African-American and African Diaspora Studies and Professor of English and Comparative Literature
Recognition of an ongoing fight against inequality
Frank Guridy, Associate Professor of History. Photo credit: Sirin Samman
Black History Month remains an important national tradition. But this year it is time to do more than commemorate the contributions of people of African descent to the history of the United States. After another outbreak of violence by white supremacy in the US Capitol on January 6th and amid the ongoing polarization of politics in that country, Black History Month in 2021 is an opportunity to remind us of the importance of a sustainable Fight against racism, sexism, trans and homophobia as well as class inequality and their overlaps in American society. Reflecting on the African American past can shed light on the way the Black Freedom Struggle provided what historian Robin Kelley called dreams of freedom that revived democracy in earlier moments of national and global crisis. Celebrating Black History Month means reflecting on and building on the traditions of the grassroots Black Organization, such as those that led to the historic Georgia Senate elections for Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff. Black History Month is important not only because it deepens understanding of the prevalence of systemic racism in America's past and present, but because it also introduces us to the history of the many Black Freedom movements that have helped us find solutions for the pressing problems can lead to our of time.
- Frank Guridy, Associate Professor of History
Month of Justice and Black History
Kimberlé Crenshaw, Professor of Law
Intersectionality and critical race theory are lenses that were forged in black history and build on that history, the history of the structure of race and racism in our society, in our law, in our institutions. I would say Black History Month is an opportunity to really look at what white supremacy has to do with our country on the verge of collapse. And, frankly, what is the name of reunification without justice, the disorder that still affects us.
- Kimberlé Crenshaw, Professor of Law
** This is an excerpt from an interview on their podcast, Intersectionality matters . Read the full interview here.
Rethinking a better future for blacks in America
Desmond Patton, Associate Professor of Social Work
Black History Month 2021 for me means embracing self-care as a moral imperative and honoring the everyday black Americans, both deceased and alive, who have used their bodies, forgiveness, and social justice commitment to help us all be free to become. I honor DJ D-Nice, who posted countless melodic beats on Instagram for breaks in music that kept anxiety and depression in check. I honor the life and death of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and many others who have shown me how precious life is and how deep the depth of our work is. I honor the Columbia School of Social Work's Faculty of Black Women, who ran our university in a mini-institute on anti-racism. Black History 2021 is about reshaping a future where black people thrive, experience joy, and feel progress.
- Desmond Patton, Associate Professor of Social Work
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