Celebrating Black Americans and the Arts

Have you ever made an effort to learn about the origin of Black History Month and its impact on the nation? Black History Month was the outgrowth of a movement started by historian Carter G. Woodson, the son of former slaves who, though largely self-taught, was the second Black American to receive a Ph.D. from Harvard University. After receiving his Ph.D. in 1912, Dr. Woodson went on to become the Dean of the Howard University College of Arts and Sciences (an HBCU – Historically Black College or University). Dr. Woodson believed that it was important to educate Americans about the contributions of, and to celebrate the achievements of, Black Americans in the United States. True to his passion, Dr. Woodson launched the Journal of Negro History in 1916. He subsequently launched Negro History week in the second week of February 1926.

The theme for Black History Month 2024 is “Black Americans and the Arts.” It is very easy to conjure up the names of many Black Americans who have made substantial contributions to the Arts and have, in many ways, shaped all of American culture. You may be familiar with the names and works of musicians like Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, Aretha Franklin, Grandpa Elliott, Mamie Smith, and Louis Armstrong. You may recognize the works of painters like Jacob Lawrence whose works were displayed in the Metropolitan Museum of art as early as the 1940’s. You may admire the work of Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller, and in particular, her sculpture “In Memory of Mary Turner as a Silent Protest Against Mob Violence” which commemorates the killing of a pregnant black woman who protested the murder of her husband. And you may enjoy dancing to the moves and the hip-hop beats created by artists like JJ Kool and Coke La Rock.

In the decades leading up to the national recognition of Black History Month in 1976, there was significant activity which was intended to provide an opportunity for African Americans to experience the American Dream in the same manner as their Caucasian counterparts. What did Black Americans want? They wanted the opportunity to obtain a college education, a good job, the ability to buy a home, to raise a family without the significant struggles which were often experienced by people of color, to walk down the street without the fear of lynching, and to cast a ballot without the fear of intimidation by groups such as the KKK. The activities that helped to change the experience of Black Americans included demonstrations in the streets of some of America’s largest cities; protests on college campuses around the nation, and sit-ins at the counters of businesses, which evolved from the Civil Rights Movement, a movement most closely identified with Martin Luther King, Jr. These acts and the Civil Rights Movement had a tangible impact.

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy issued Executive Order 11246, which was intended as an affirmative step to provide equal opportunity for all, without regard to race for contracting opportunities, and by extension, jobs, underwritten by the federal government. Only a few short years after the issuance of that Executive Order, Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act established laws that prohibited discrimination based on race and gender. In turn, this law formed the basis of the Bakke decision which proclaimed that race could be a factor for admissions to colleges, both public and private. Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, 438 U. S. 265 (1978). The Bakke Court recognized the importance of diversity in education. In other words, the Bakke Court recognized that the United States is not monolithic but is instead multifaceted. The Bakke Court recognized that the United States is not monocultural but is instead multicultural and the multiculturalism of this nation is what has made it strong.

It is, therefore, ironic that in 2023, 62 years after the issuance of Executive Order 11246 and 59 years after the adoption of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, a shorter period than the expected life of an American citizen, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the ability of colleges to use race as a factor in admissions to college despite the fact that the percentage of Black Americans going to and graduating from college significantly increased after the Bakke decision. Cross and Slater: “Only the Onset of Affirmative Action Explains the Explosive Growth in Blacks Enrollment in Higher Education, The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education No. 23 (Spring, 1999). True leaders would celebrate the fact that education had become available to a larger group of citizens of the United States, regardless of their color. True leaders would also delve further into how much change has occurred and recognize that the percentage of Black Americans attending and graduating from college has continued to be significantly lower than the percentages of their white counterparts which studies have shown is the result of the continuation of differences in access and opportunity. Richard Wolf: Racial Divide Persists in Areas; John Marcus: The Hechinger Report.

Black History Month 2024 arrives in the midst of a heated political battle over who will be the leaders this nation on inauguration day, January 20, 2025. As I listen to the pitches being made by candidates all around the nation, it occurs to me that there has been much change since the inception of Black History Month at Kent State University in 1970 and the national recognition of Black History Month by President Gerald Ford in 1976. Some may nod their heads and agree that a lot has changed. Others may reflect on this proposition and question whether the change experienced by Black Americans has resulted in the positive development and impact that was hoped for and intended, not just in the decision to celebrate Black History Month, but also in some of the changes put into place in the time prior to the recognition of Black History Month. Some may go so far as to ask whether there has truly been a recognition and realization of the contributions made by Black Americans to the success, stability and continued progress of these United States.

It is not just the retraction of opportunity for ethnic minorities in the college setting that begs the question of how much has really changed, it is also the words and actions of members of state and local leaders who have attacked the teaching of the truth about the fact and role of slavery in this nation’s past, not because it is false, but because slavery and its consequence are an uncomfortable truth. And sadly, this change of attitude has made it acceptable to return to a place in our history where the rhetoric of racism is apparently, once again, openly acceptable in the daily activities and communications of everyday Americans.

Despite this turn of events, the contributions of Black Americans cannot be erased, and the dignity of Black Americans cannot be stolen. Although not famous, everyday Black Americans are artists within their own right. The have experienced the lack of respect, the lack of inclusion, and, in many cases, the anger of those who forget that much of this nation was actually built on the backs of Black Americans. Black Americans have refined the art of perseverance in the face of adversity, the art of caring for those in need even though those in need may treat them with disdain. They have mastered the art of optimism even in the face of resistance to their very existence.

Commencing on February 1, 2024, it is my plan to celebrate, not only the artists who make us clap our hands to the beat of the music; that makes us tap our foot in rhythm (“I’m so Excited, “the Pointer Sisters); to stand in awe of the ability of the unknown photographer to capture the essence of Isabella Baumfree (aka Sojourner Truth); to wish that we could have written the words about love that make us stop, reflect and brings us to tears: “Love recognizes no barriers. It jumps hurdles, leaps fences, penetrates walls to arrive at its destination full of hope.” (Maya Angelou); to ask the question why we are thankful that with perseverance and patience the truth rises to light when we watch the movie, “When They See Us,” directed by Ava DuVernay; to be moved by the iambic pentameter in the words of Martin Luther King (“Free at Last, Free at Last, thank God almighty, I’m free at last.”); and to scream at the top of our lungs at the perfected art of making free throws (e.g. Karl Malone) but most of all, simply to celebrate the fact of and the art of being a Black American.

Join me if you will.

Originally published in driTM | The VoiceTM, February 2024 edition