Black History Month: This Is Why We Still Need Black History Month

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“We’re more than a people who come from slavery.”In my home growing up, every day was Black History Month. The pearl white walls were decorated with iconic black art. Bookcases shelved the words of Bebe Moore Campbell and Malcolm X and Alice Walker and Terry McMillan. As young as eight I was exposed to keynote speeches by scholar Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, poet Nikki Giovanni, and astronaut Dr. Mae Jemison. All of the college students my mother mentored were black women. Her black friends were educators and nurses and directors. My mother and her three friends founded the first all-black Girl Scouts troop in the city. Black excellence was the norm — February just meant we turned it up a notch.

Everybody — especially those who aren’t black — didn’t grow up with that kind of celebration of blackness. Black history in public schools is usually only taught during Black History Month. Even at the best of schools black history is often reduced to three parts: slavery, a watered down version of the Civil Rights Movement and, if you’re lucky, a handful of black inventors. The only great black heroes you learn about is the sanitized story of Dr. Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks. Forget about learning the important contributions of people like Fannie Lou Hamer, Sojourner Truth, W.E.B. Dubois, or Eldridge Cleaver.

It bothered me that in high school Harper Lee, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Mark Twain were required reading but Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, and Octavia Butler weren’t. Because black history is American history it should be part of the curriculum. By the time I enrolled in grad school I was convinced Black History Month was a distraction from the issues still plaguing blacks in America. I was loud and wrong.

The 24-year-old me wrote an op-ed ripe with respectability politics on how we needed to do more to dismantle oppressive systems. I was frustrated as the only black woman in my classes and one of the only ones in the university’s newsroom. I resented the university using Black History Month to hold black-focused panels and events that were otherwise nonexistent. Thinking back on that op-ed I cringe. Instead of writing how we were all distracted by Black History Month (which in hindsight is a ridiculous notion) I should have written about how important it is to honor black history not only in February but all year long. Now I understand that that celebration is never a distraction, but rather a necessary act of self-love.

What my 24-year-old self really wanted to express was that BHM is not just a time to parade around how far blacks have come, nor is it a time to shame our community for its perceived problems with the ill trotted out “Look what your people did under much dire circumstances.” It’s not about throwing shade on how BHM falls on the shortest month of the year (although it is a little funny). It’s not even about rebutting folks like Clueless star Stacey Dash who foolishly think we should do away with it altogether.

Black History Month at its best encompasses joy and activism and representation. It’s a time to celebrate black arts and literature and black businesses. It’s about doing actual work that will make the world better for the little girls and boys coming behind us. It’s about radical self-love for ourselves and our people. Black History Month should challenge us to immerse ourselves in the richness of black culture.

While I wholeheartedly believe BHM is for us and belongs to us, I’d hope that non-blacks see it as an opportunity to challenge themselves because we all have a long way to go towards ensuring equality for all. Ideally that would look like non-black parents encouraging their children to read books by black authors, or attending black museums or cultural centers to really soak up all the history beyond slavery. It would definitely include corporations reflecting on how few blacks they have employed and committing themselves to change. In a perfect world, BHM would inspire everyone toward action — big and small.

My idea of why Black History Month matters is likely not the same as what historian Carter G. Woodson and minister Jesse E. Moorland had in mind when they founded it in 1926. And that’s OK. The beauty in Black History Month is we can all celebrate in different ways that are meaningful to us as individuals.

Woodson and Moorland first founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History in 1915. It was an organization committed to promoting the achievements of black Americans and those of African descent. It wasn’t until 1926 that they sponsored Negro History Week, choosing the second week in February to coincide with the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. The week sparked nationwide celebrations of blacks history through panels, lectures, community organizations, and history clubs. Mayors began to recognize Negro History Week in the years following, but it wasn’t until president Gerald R. Ford that Black History Month was officially recognized in 1976. He called on the public to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”

Much has changed since 1976 while much has stayed the same. During the MLK NOW event at the historic Riverside Church in New York City, celebs including Chris Rock, Tessa Thompson, Michael B. Jordan, and more delivered speeches by historic black figures from the ’60s and ’70s in honor of MLK Day. It was eerie how relevant those words are today.
Black people are more than a people who come from slavery. We have more than one great hero. We have been visionaries. Scientists. Astronauts. Inventors. President of the United States of America. And everything else under the sun. That history is for everybody to know.

This year it’s my hope that Black History Month sparks a fierce dedication for us all to do more to honor black history. I hope we all recognize the sacrifices blacks have made to make this a better place that Americans call home. And once February is over I hope we hold on to how powerful Black History Month is and carry that joy, that knowledge, that spirit, for the rest of the year. Source: Teen Vogue, This Is Why We Still Need Black History Month by Bené Viera, February 1, 2016

Bené Viera is a passionate multimedia journalist, writer and blogger.

Her byline has appeared on Teen,,, ESSENCE, VIBE,,,,,,, Juicy magazine and others. As a reporter, Bené has covered pop culture, entertainment, music, gender and race. She served as a staff writer for VH1 and Centric, respectively. She has interviewed Diahann Carroll, Jessie Ware, Shonda Rhimes, Ron Isley, Nas, Kerry Washington, Spike Lee, Viola Davis, Brandy, J. Cole, Reverend Al Sharpton, Anita Hill, Tracy Martin (Trayvon Martin’s father), just to name a few. Most recently, Bené wrote “The House That Shonda Built” cover story for ESSENCE magazine’s October 2015 issue. It was the first time in the magazine’s 45 year history to release six covers for one issue. She also penned three cover stories for the magazine’s #BlackGirlMagic February 2016 issue. Bené is committed to social justice, race issues and telling nuanced stories about women.

Bené earned her Bachelor’s of Arts in English from Tennessee State University and her Master’s of Arts in Journalism from Indiana University. She is a proud member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. She currently resides in BK.

We made it!! A new post for every day in February in recognition of Black History Month. This is our last post for Black History Month 2017.  Thanks for your support!

Black History Month: Underground Railroad 

The Underground Railroad was a network of secret routes and safe houses established in the United States during the early-to-mid 19th century, and used by African American slaves to escape into free states and Canada with the aid of abolitionists and allies who were sympathetic to their cause.  The term is also applied to the abolitionists, both black and white, free and enslaved, who aided the fugitives.  Various other routes led to Mexico or overseas.  An earlier escape route running south toward Florida, then a Spanish possession, existed from the late 17th century until shortly after the American Revolution.   However, the network now generally known as the Underground Railroad was formed in the early 1800s, and reached its height between 1850 and 1860.  One estimate suggests that by 1850, 100,000 slaves had escaped via the “Railroad”.

British North America (present-day Canada), where slavery was prohibited, was a popular destination, as its long border gave many points of access. Most former slaves settled in Ontario. More than 30,000 people were said to have escaped there via the network during its 20-year peak period, although U.S. Census figures account for only 6,000.  Numerous fugitives’ stories are documented in the 1872 book The Underground Railroad Records by William Still, an abolitionist who then headed the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee.

At its peak, nearly 1,000 slaves per year escaped from slave-holding states using the Underground Railroad – more than 5,000 court cases for escaped slaves were recorded – many fewer than the natural increase of the enslaved population. The resulting economic impact was minuscule, but the psychological influence on slaveholders was immense. Under the original Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, officials from free states were required to assist slaveholders or their agents who recaptured runaway slaves, but citizens and governments of many free states ignored the law, and the Underground Railroad thrived.

With heavy lobbying by Southern politicians, the Compromise of 1850 was passed by Congress after the Mexican–American War. It stipulated a more stringent Fugitive Slave Law; ostensibly, the compromise addressed regional problems by compelling officials of free states to assist slave catchers, granting them immunity to operate in free states. Because the law required sparse documentation to claim a person was a fugitive, slave catchers also kidnapped free blacks, especially children, and sold them into slavery. Southern politicians often exaggerated the number of escaped slaves and often blamed these escapes on Northerners interfering with Southern property rights. The law deprived suspected slaves of the right to defend themselves in court, making it difficult to prove free status. In a de facto bribe, judges were paid a higher fee ($10) for a decision that confirmed a suspect as a slave than for one ruling that the suspect was free ($5). Many Northerners who might have ignored slave issues in the South were confronted by local challenges that bound them to support slavery. This was a primary grievance cited by the Union during the American Civil War, and the perception that Northern States ignored the fugitive slave law was a major justification for secession.

The escape network was not literally underground nor a railroad. It was figuratively “underground” in the sense of being an underground resistance. It was known as a “railroad” by way of the use of rail terminology in the code. The Underground Railroad consisted of meeting points, secret routes, transportation, and safe houses, and personal assistance provided by abolitionist sympathizers. Participants generally organized in small, independent groups; this helped to maintain secrecy because individuals knew some connecting “stations” along the route but knew few details of their immediate area. Escaped slaves would move north along the route from one way station to the next. “Conductors” on the railroad came from various backgrounds and included free-born blacks, white abolitionists, former slaves (either escaped or manumitted), and Native Americans. Church clergy and congregations often played a role, especially the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), Congregationalists, Wesleyans, and Reformed Presbyterians, as well as certain sects of mainstream denominations such as branches of the Methodist church and American Baptists. Without the presence and support of free black residents, there would have been almost no chance for fugitive slaves to pass into freedom unmolested.  

Harriet Tubman was a worker on the Underground Railroad.  She made 13 trips to the South, helping to free over 70 people. She led people to the northern free states and Canada. This helped Harriet Tubman gain the name “Moses of Her People.”  

Source: Wikipedia 

Black History Month: Harry Belafonte

An actor, humanitarian, and the acknowledged “King of Calypso,” Harry Belafonte ranked among the most seminal performers of the postwar era. One of the most successful African-American pop stars in history, Belafonte’s staggering talent, good looks, and masterful assimilation of folk, jazz, and worldbeat rhythms allowed him to achieve a level of mainstream eminence and crossover popularity virtually unparalleled in the days before the advent of the civil rights movement — a cultural uprising which he himself helped spearhead.

Harold George Belafonte, Jr., was born March 1, 1927, in Harlem, NY. The son of Caribbean-born immigrants, he returned with his mother to her native Jamaica at the age of eight, remaining there for the next five years. Upon returning to the U.S., Belafonte dropped out of high school to enlist in the U.S. Navy; after his discharge, he resettled in New York City to forge a career as an actor, performing with the American Negro Theatre while studying drama at Erwin Piscator’s famed Dramatic Workshop alongside the likes of Marlon Brando and Tony Curtis.
A singing role resulted in a series of cabaret engagements, and eventually Belafonte even opened his own club. Initially, he put his clear, silky voice to work as a straight pop singer, launching his recording career on the Jubilee label in 1949; however, at the dawn of the 1950s he discovered folk music, learning material through the Library of Congress’ American folk songs archives while also discovering West Indian music. With guitarist Millard Thomas, Belafonte soon made his debut at the legendary jazz club the Village Vanguard; in 1953, he made his film bow in Bright Road, winning a Tony Award the next year for his work in the Broadway revue John Murray Anderson’s Almanac.

With his lead role in Otto Preminger’s film adaptation of Oscar Hammerstein’s Carmen Jones, Belafonte shot to stardom; after signing to the RCA label, he issued Mark Twain and Other Folk Favorites, which reached the number three slot on the Billboard charts in the early weeks of 1956. His next effort, titled simply Belafonte, reached number one, kick-starting a national craze for calypso music; Calypso, also issued in 1956, topped the charts for a staggering 31 weeks on the strength of hits like “Jamaica Farewell” and the immortal “Banana Boat (Day-O).” 

 Following the success of 1957’s An Evening with Belafonte and its hit “Mary’s Boy Child,” Belafonte returned to film, using his now considerable clout to realize the controversial film Island in the Sun, in which his character contemplates an affair with a white woman portrayed by Joan Fontaine. Similarly, 1959’s Odds Against Tomorrow cast him as a bank robber teamed with a racist accomplice. Also in 1959 he released the LP Belafonte at Carnegie Hall, a recording of a sold-out April performance that spent over three years on the charts; Belafonte Returns to Carnegie Hall followed in 1960 and featured appearances by Odetta, Miriam Makeba, and the Chad Mitchell Trio. 

 At the turn of the 1960s, Belafonte became television’s first black producer; his special Tonight with Harry Belafonte won an Emmy that same year. Although dissatisfied with filmmaking, he continued his prolific album output with 1961’s Jump Up Calypso and 1962’s The Midnight Special, which featured the first-ever recorded appearance by a young harmonica player named Bob Dylan. As the Beatles and other stars of the British Invasion began to dominate the pop charts, Belafonte’s impact as a commercial force diminished; 1964’s Belafonte at the Greek Theatre was his last Top 40 effort, and subsequent efforts like 1965’s An Evening with Belafonte/Makeba and 1966’s In My Quiet Room struggled even to crack the Top 100. 1969’s Homeward Bound earned Belafonte his final Billboard chart appearance, although he continued to record. He then made his first film appearance in over a decade in 1970’s The Angel Levine and continued to focus on his work as a civil rights activist. 

 In addition to his continued work in recording (albeit less frequently after leaving RCA in the mid-’70s) and film (1972’s Buck and the Preacher and 1974’s Uptown Saturday Night), Belafonte spent an increasing amount of the 1970s and 1980s as a tireless humanitarian; most famously, he was a central figure of the USA for Africa effort, singing on the 1985 single “We Are the World.” A year later, he replaced Danny Kaye as UNICEF’s Goodwill Ambassador. After a long absence from the screen, Belafonte resurfaced in the mid-’90s in a number of film roles, most notably in the reverse-racism drama White Man’s Burden and Robert Altman’s jazz-era period piece Kansas City. Although at this point Belafonte had stopped recording new music, he kept his name in the news by releasing the occasional live album (including 1997’s An Evening with Harry Belafonte & Friends) as well as being an outspoken proponent of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez and opponent of the Bush government.  Source: AllMusic, biography by Jason Ankeny

Black History Month: Dorothy Johnson Vaughan

In an era when NASA is led by an African American man (Administrator Charles Bolden) and a woman (Deputy Administrator Dava Newman), and when recent NASA Center Directors come from a variety of backgrounds, it’s easy to overlook the people who paved the way for the agency’s current robust and diverse workforce and leadership. Those who speak of NASA’s pioneers rarely mention the name Dorothy Vaughan, but as the head of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics’ (NACA’s) segregated West Area Computing Unit from 1949 until 1958, Vaughan was both a respected mathematician and NASA’s first African-American manager.

Dorothy Vaughan came to the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in 1943, during the height of World War II, leaving her position as the math teacher at Robert Russa Moton High School in Farmville, VA to take what she believed would be a temporary war job. Two years after President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802 into law, prohibiting racial, religious and ethnic discrimination in the country’s defense industry, the Laboratory began hiring black women to meet the skyrocketing demand for processing aeronautical research data. Urgency and twenty-four hour shifts prevailed– as did Jim Crow laws which required newly-hired “colored” mathematicians to work separately from their white female counterparts. Dorothy Vaughan was assigned to the segregated “West Area Computing” unit, an all-black group of female mathematicians, who were originally required to use separate dining and bathroom facilities. Over time, both individually and as a group, the West Computers distinguished themselves with contributions to virtually every area of research at Langley.

The group’s original section heads (first Margery Hannah, then Blanche Sponsler) were white. In 1949, Dorothy Vaughan was promoted to lead the group, making her the NACA’s first black supervisor, and one of the NACA’s few female supervisors. The Section Head title gave Dorothy rare Laboratory-wide visibility, and she collaborated with other well-known (white) computers like Vera Huckel and Sara Bullock on projects such as compiling a handbook for algebraic methods for calculating machines. Vaughan was a steadfast advocate for the women of West Computing, and even intervened on behalf of white computers in other groups who deserved promotions or pay raises. Engineers valued her recommendations as to the best “girls” for a particular project, and for challenging assignments they often requested that she personally handle the work.

Dorothy Vaughan helmed West Computing for nearly a decade. In 1958, when the NACA made the transition to NASA, segregated facilities, including the West Computing office, were abolished. Dorothy Vaughan and many of the former West Computers joined the new Analysis and Computation Division (ACD), a racially and gender-integrated group on the frontier of electronic computing. Dorothy Vaughan became an expert FORTRAN programmer, and she also contributed to the Scout Launch Vehicle Program.

Dorothy Vaughan retired from NASA in 1971. She sought, but never received, another management position at Langley. Her legacy lives on in the successful careers of notable West Computing alumni, including Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, Eunice Smith and Kathryn Peddrew, and the achievements of second-generation mathematicians and engineers such as Dr. Christine Darden.  Source: NASA, Biography by Margot Lee Shetterly

Black History Month: Oprah Winfrey

Billionaire Oprah Winfrey is best known for hosting her own internationally popular talk show from 1986 to 2011. She is also an actress, philanthropist, publisher and producer.  

As host and supervising producer of the top-rated, award-winning The Oprah Winfrey Show, she entertained, enlightened and uplifted millions of viewers for 25 years. Her accomplishments as a global media leader and philanthropist have established her as one of the most respected and admired public figures today.  Source:, Oprah Winfrey’s Official Biography  

Black History Month: James Baldwin

Born on August 2, 1924, in New York City, James Arthur Baldwin published the 1953 novel Go Tell It on the Mountain, going on to garner acclaim for his insights on race, spirituality and humanity. Other novels included Giovanni’s Room, Another Country and Just Above My Head as well as essay works like Notes of a Native Son and The Fire Next Time. Having lived in France, he died on December 1, 1987 in Saint-Paul de Vence. 

Although he spent a great deal of his life abroad, James Baldwin always remained a quintessentially American writer. Whether he was working in Paris or Istanbul, he never ceased to reflect on his experience as a black man in white America. In numerous essays, novels, plays and public speeches, the eloquent voice of James Baldwin spoke of the pain and struggle of black Americans and the saving power of brotherhood.

His essays, as collected in Notes of a Native Son (1955), explore palpable yet unspoken intricacies of racial, sexual, and class distinctions in Western societies, most notably in mid-20th-century America, and their inevitable if unnameable tensions. Some Baldwin essays are book-length, for instance The Fire Next Time (1963), No Name in the Street (1972), and The Devil Finds Work (1976).

Baldwin’s novels and plays fictionalize fundamental personal questions and dilemmas amid complex social and psychological pressures thwarting the equitable integration not only of black people, but also of gay and bisexual men, while depicting some internalized obstacles to such individuals’ quests for acceptance. Such dynamics are prominent in Baldwin’s second novel, Giovanni’s Room, written in 1956, well before the gay liberation movement. 

James Baldwin — the grandson of a slave — was born in Harlem in 1924. The oldest of nine children, he grew up in poverty, developing a troubled relationship with his strict, religious stepfather. As a child, he cast about for a way to escape his circumstances. As he recalls, “I knew I was black, of course, but I also knew I was smart. I didn’t know how I would use my mind, or even if I could, but that was the only thing I had to use.” By the time he was fourteen, Baldwin was spending much of his time in libraries and had found his passion for writing.

During this early part of his life, he followed in his stepfather’s footsteps and became a preacher. Of those teen years, Baldwin recalled, “Those three years in the pulpit – I didn’t realize it then – that is what turned me into a writer, really, dealing with all that anguish and that despair and that beauty.” Many have noted the strong influence of the language of the church, the language of the Bible, on Baldwin’s style: its cadences and tone. Eager to move on, Baldwin knew that if he left the pulpit he must also leave home, so at eighteen he took a job working for the New Jersey railroad.

After working for a short while with the railroad, Baldwin moved to Greenwich Village, where he worked for a number of years as a freelance writer, working primarily on book reviews. He caught the attention of the well-known novelist, Richard Wright – and though Baldwin had not yet finished a novel, Wright helped him secure a grant with which he could support himself as a writer. In 1948, at age 24, Baldwin left for Paris, where he hoped to find enough distance from the American society he grew up in to write about it.

After writing a number of pieces for various magazines, Baldwin went to a small village in Switzerland to finish his first novel. Go Tell It on the Mountain, published in 1953, was an autobiographical work about growing up in Harlem. The passion and depth with which he described the struggles of black Americans were unlike anything that had been written. Though not instantly recognized as such, Go Tell It on the Mountain has long been considered an American classic.

Over the next ten years, Baldwin moved from Paris to New York to Istanbul, writing two books of essays, Notes of a Native Son (1955) and Nobody Knows My Name (1961), as well as two novels, Giovanni’s Room (1956) and Another Country (1962). The essays explored racial tension with eloquence and unprecedented honesty; the novels dealt with taboo themes (homosexuality and interracial relationships). By describing life as he knew it, Baldwin created socially relevant, psychologically penetrating literature … and readers responded. Both Nobody Knows My Name and Another Country became immediate bestsellers.

Being abroad gave Baldwin a perspective on the life he’d left behind and a solitary freedom to pursue his craft. “Once you find yourself in another civilization,” he notes, “you’re forced to examine your own.” In a sense, Baldwin’s travels brought him even closer to the social concerns of contemporary America. In the early 1960s, overwhelmed by a sense of responsibility to the times, Baldwin returned to take part in the civil rights movement. Traveling throughout the South, he began work on an explosive work about black identity and the state of racial struggle, The Fire Next Time (1963). This, too, was a bestseller: so incendiary that it put Baldwin on the cover of TIME Magazine. For many, Baldwin’s clarion call for human equality – in the essays of Notes of a Native Son, Nobody Knows My Name and The Fire Next Time – became an early and essential voice in the civil rights movement. Though at times criticized for his pacifist stance, Baldwin remained an important figure in that struggle throughout the 1960s.

After the assassinations of his friends Medgar Evers, Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X, Baldwin returned to St. Paul de Vence, France, where he worked on a book about the disillusionment of the times, If Beale Street Could Talk (1974). Many responded to the harsh tone of If Beale Street Could Talk with accusations of bitterness – but even though Baldwin had encapsulated much of the anger of the times in his book, he always remained a constant advocate for universal love and brotherhood. During the last ten years of his life, he produced a number of important works of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. He also turned to teaching as a new way of connecting with the young.

By 1987, when he died of stomach cancer at age 63, James Baldwin had become one of the most important and vocal advocates for equality. From Go Tell It on the Mountain to The Evidence of Things Not Seen (1985), James Baldwin created works of literary beauty and depth that will remain essential parts of the American canon.  Source: PBS



Black History Month: Otis Boykin

Otis Boykin was an inventor responsible for many important electrical devices that are used in modern times, most notably the electrical resistor. On February 21, 1961, an improved version of Boykin’s electrical resistor was published and caught the attention of the military and one of America’s top computer companies.

Boykin was born August 29, 1920 in Dallas, Texas. The Fisk University graduate spent two years at the Illinois Institute of Technology, leaving early to pursue work. One of his more than two dozen inventions was a wire resistor, which is used in devices to control the flow of currents and power distribution. In 1959, one of his resistors made was patented and produced by companies.

In the mid ’50’s, Boykin continued tinkering with the resistor, which culminated in a much improved version of the invention. This new resistor was used by IBM in some of their computers and the military branches used the new design in some of its guided missiles.

Aside from the resistor, Boykin’s most notable invention might be circuit improvements made to the pacemaker. In some accounts, it was said that Boykin was moved to work on the device after losing his mother to heart failure.

By the time of his death in 1982 from heart failure, Boykin had presented several inventions, including a burglar-proof cash register and a chemical air filter. Varying reports say he held between 26 to 28 patents.