A few weeks ago the students of American History in Culture and Memory — a course offered this spring semester as a part of the Honors Program – were given an empty bookshelf with the task to fill it. This month’s theme is Black History Month, which is celebrated for the entire month of February.
But what is “Black History Month,” and why is it important? During the United States Bicentennial in 1976, President Gerald R. Ford officially recognized Black History Month to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.” This recognition came just a few years after the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s and the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Our class went to the library together with the purpose of picking books or other media that spoke to us about Black History Month. After a while, we met back at our bookshelf on the first floor the library with a variety of works. We represented the struggle of the past with a narrative by Harriet Tubman, who famously led escaped slaves from the South through the Underground Railroad to the relative safety of the North. Other historical books were chosen as well, along with works of literature, cook books, music, and film. The easy part was picking what to display on the shelf, but decidedly harder was choosing what to prominently display. What is important? What is just fun? Is it not all, in its own way, important? The shelf is still evolving.
The purpose of Black History Month is to reflect upon the accomplishments of African Americans and other citizens of color despite the unjust and appalling treatment they endured since the beginning of American history. This year is important in particular because it is the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the landmark decision and first of many laws which ended segregation and gave minorities and women the rights they deserved all along. It is sobering to realize that many of our parents, and certainly our grandparents, were alive in times when our population was so terribly divided. Still, there is so much more work to do as racism is still alive and African Americans still need a “Black History Month” in order to be properly recognized. We need to work toward the time when it isn’t “Somebody’s History”, but instead “Our History” in this beautifully diverse nation, and all cultures get the respect they truly deserve.
The students of American History in Culture and Memory invite you visit our bookshelf on the first floor of the Resnick Library, on the wall right behind the café. Please feel free to check out any of the books or media – that’s what it’s there for! Just, while you’re doing it, take a moment to reflect on where this country has been, where we are, and most importantly, where we need to go.