01 Mar 1999 Black History Month: A Retrospective, by Amy Ridenour
I don’t know about you, but I’ve never known what to think about Black History Month.
Whenever I think of it, my first thought is invariably: What comic decided to make Black History Month the shortest month of the year?
Seriously, though, what does Black History Month really stand for? When I walk or drive down a street during Black History Month, I often see signs proclaiming “X Company Salutes Black History Month.” What does this mean? Are they simply playing lip service to the idea of saluting black people? Are they using Black History Month to lure black customers? Are they printing a sign just so that no one can criticize them for ignoring Black History Month?
I hope not, but I fear it’s often true.
I believe Black History Month should be about exactly that: History. Too many Americans, young and old, black and white, know next-to-nothing about African-American history. And that’s not right.
Educators tell us that one reason some inner city black kids don’t do well in school is because its “not cool” to study and get good grades. But if these kids knew more about African-American history – how it once was illegal to teach a black child to read, and how many schools and universities simply weren’t open to blacks – maybe they’d start seeing an education not as a meaningless chore, but as a hard-won right and a challenge. A right and a challenge many of their forebears fought hard to give them.
I believe it would also do these kids a world of good to learn about the accomplishments of African-Americans who led lives of stunning accomplishment despite the obstacle of living in a society with legal segregation and even slavery.
Along these lines, one Black History Month commemoration I believe more companies should emulate is a Connecticut exhibit (viewable nationally through a free brochure available by mail) sponsored by the Pitney Bowes Corporation. The exhibit highlights the very significant achievements of African-Americans in the communications field during the eras of legal segregation and slavery. Did you know, for instance, that an African-American, Granville T. Woods, invented the telephone transmitter? That African-Americans Lee S. Burridge and Newman R. Marshman invented the typewriter? That African-American Henry T. Sampson played a key role in the development of cellular telephones when he invented an electric cell that coverts gamma rays directly into electricity?
Who knew? I surely didn’t, and that’s why I applaud this kind of commemoration of Black History Month. This exhibit isn’t lip service: It truly honors America’s African-American forebears for their very real and very significant accomplishments by researching what they did and presenting it to the public in a constructive, accessible, educational and inspirational way.
I also applaud the fact that the company that sponsored this exhibit doesn’t pay attention to black Americans only during Black History Month. Black History Month means nothing – it is even a detriment to the minority community – if people take advantage of it as an excuse to ignore black accomplishments and talents the other eleven months of the year. Pitney Bowes has a 38% minority workforce, placed its headquarters in an area where minorities need jobs and has received many awards for being one of the best companies in America for African-Americans to work for. They don’t see Black History Month as an exception – they live it 12 months a year.
Black History Month should be about recognizing and rewarding African-American accomplishments. We can do this best by knowing the sacrifices and achievements of those who came before us, and honoring them by striving for more.