Paul R. Lehman, Black History Month must change

February 6, 2011 at 6:02 pm | Posted in Ethnicity in America, Media and Race, Race in America | 2 Comments
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Time has come to make the change from Black History month to African American History month. For too long, African Americans have been content to keep the black reference as an identity instead of moving ahead and claiming the term African American as the up-to-date reference. Why is it taking so long for African Americans to see that the term black aids and supports the false concept of multiple biological races rather than a single human race? Let’s look at why we need to make this change.

When Africans were brought to this country (some came on their own) the powers that be, mainly slave traders, removed all vestiges of the Africans’ identity and replaced it with the term black, negro, slave. Later, a variety other terms was added. The primary purpose of the name change was to deny the Africans any positive value other than in the slave market. All Africans were called negroes or blacks regardless of their social status. Since Africans had no power to change or challenge the practice of being referred to as Negroes or blacks, they had to go along with the program. Some African Americans in the late 1800s and early 1900s did try to change the name to Afro-American, but their success was short lived.

In 1915, a young African American named Carter Godwin Woodson, a PhD from Harvard (1912), was so concerned about the lack of information about African Americans being disseminated to the public generally, and the African American community specifically, that he created the Association for the study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH). The purpose of this organization was to “promote, research, preserve, interpret, and disseminate information” about the life, history, and culture of the Negro people. Carter whose parents were slave was born into a bigoted society that referred to all African Americans as Negro or black. He did not seek to change or challenge the use of those terms. He was not alone in this regard. Many other influential African Americans accepted the status quo. Carter’s concerns and efforts to educate African Americans and the general public did result in the establishment of Negro History Week(1926)—a week that focused on disseminating the accomplishments, contributions, and research of African Americans.

 After the Brown v Topeka Broad of Education decision in 1954, civil rights activity began to gain momentum, and by the early 1960s had given birth to a full-fledged civil right movement. Another movement that accompanied the civil rights movement was the Black Power movement. Many young people like Jesse Jackson, Julian Bond, Stokely Carmichael, H. Rap Brown, Eldridge Cleaver and a host of others began to focus on the aspect of African American blackness. The intent of the focus on blackness was to change it from a negative concept that denigrated the African American’s self image into a positive one that up-lifted the self image. Many creative artists and scholars joined in the movement that resulted in popularizing phrases such “I’m black and I’m proud,” Black is beautiful,” and “Black Power.”While the movement was successful in changing black from a negative to a positive concept, the changes only affected the African American community. The bigots in society who referred to African Americans as Negroes, blacks, and the n-word were not affected at all. The problem was that the terms forced on the Africans and subsequently, the African Americans still persisted in denying them a positive self-image in addition to an ancestry and culture.

In 1972, the ASNLH went through an internal fight that concluded with the association’s name being changed to the Association for the study of Afro-American Life and History. This change was very important because it in dedicated a change in the self-perception of African Americans. Dropping the term Negro from the association’s name was a positive move, one that indicated the growth of a positive self-awareness that was not defined by slavery’s legacy. Fortunately, in 1976, the celebration of Negro History week was changed to a month of celebration, but unfortunately it was changed to Black History Month. The only difference between negro and black is the spelling; both words mean the same thing, and both words were the gifts of the American slave masters. So, this name change was a step backwards. Why would anyone want to preserve either of these slave master given terms? An old saying speaks to the fact that when one knows betters then one will do better. If we do not know better, it is time we learn because the consequences can be devastating to young people.

If we look around us today we discover that America has many African American-looking people who are not African American. If we try to identify them as blacks or African American, they will inform us of their cultural identity. For example, if we were to look at  a few professional basket players like Tony Parker, Thabo Sefolosha, and Serge Ibaka, we might mistake them for blacks; they will tell us that they are not. But why is that important? Their names and cultural identity will tell us something about their history. If we ask an African Americans his cultural identity and he answers that he is black, we know several things about him immediately—he does not know his history and culture except from a non-descript black perspective. Black is a color that has no social significance except in parts of the world where people who are called blacks are not valued. Black does not indicate a country, ancestry, or culture.

When we continue to hold on to terms like negro and black we are simply re-enforcing the confidence of American bigots who see society as a variety of races with the so-called blacks at the bottom of the social latter and so-called whites at the top. Changing the word from black to African American will not eliminate bigotry, but it will take away the re-enforcement of separateness of race. The time has come to make the change. Back in the ‘60s Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions recorded a song that aided in the civil rights movement. The song was “People Get Ready, There’s a Train  a coming.” As we learn more about ourselves, we learn that growth involves movement. The train of change is in the station. Now is the time to move from black to African American, and like the words to Mayfield’s song say, “You don’t need no ticket, and you just get on board.”

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2 Comments »

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  1. Very well put. It seems like such a simple shift, but I think part of the problem is that many African Americans, because of the Black Power movement view the word “black” as positive. They don’t understand or accept that the meaning only changed for African Americans.

    Don’t stop educating us. Knowledge is power. All aboard!!!

  2. This is a simple but brilliant statement: “Black is a color that has no social significance except in parts of the world where people who are called blacks are not valued” Many people of privilege would find the concept surprising.
    You might be encouraged to know that the other day as I was listening to The Takeaway on NPR the subject of ‘race’ came up, and at least two — and I think three — of the statements emailed in by listeners pointed out the artificial and damaging concept of ‘race’. Can it be that it is starting to be heard? I agree with James: keep teaching!


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