The celebration has evolved to an entire month, February, and is now known and widely recognized as Black History Month.
Throughout the month of February, all Americans are exposed to and educated about the central role of the African American presence in shaping and enriching the American story. While Black History Month is a necessary and important part of the year, its existence brings into laser focus a deeper question: Why does America need a Black History Month?
Critics of Black History Month often lament the practice of setting aside a month to celebrate the contributions of one specific group of Americans. It is a fair question although historically the origins of the question have not come from critics and communities generally welcoming to African Americans.
The fact is that through a deeply ingrained and pernicious social and cultural system of laws and customs, America’s Back citizens have been methodically dehumanized and marginalized and their contributions to this nation distorted and erased.
In a nation where human diversity is genuinely exalted and the mosaic of American citizens fully appreciated as a national treasure, the contributions of African Americans would be routinely woven into the historic narrative about the birth, development and ascension of our nation as the most powerful nation on the planet.
Unfortunately, this is not the legacy we have inherited and as a consequence, we still need a Black History Month — not solely for African Americans but for all Americans — to understand and embrace the humanity of African Americans and their contributions to making this great nation.
This year, unlike any in our immediate past, the conversation around social injustice and the need for racial reconciliation has given Black History Month a particular imperative as this nation confronts the shameful legacy of inequality and its brutal consequences on the lives of many African Americans.
It should be our fervent hope that one day the histories and contributions of all Americans can become a natural, normal and seamless part of American history. Perhaps then we will not need a Black History Month; until then, however, we will celebrate proudly and loudly what needs to be honored and acknowledged.
Elfred Anthony Pinkard is president of Wilberforce University, a 164-year-old, private historically black institution in Wilberforce.