Say Their Names: The Significance of Black History Month

Photo by Stephen Somerstein, Courtesy of Muhammad Ali Center

Photo by Stephen Somerstein, Courtesy of Muhammad Ali Center

When we think of racism today, we think of it as a long-slain dragon from the dark ages before the Civil Rights Movement. While some of the most overt forms of racism have thankfully departed, its vestiges remain. The events that precipitated the Black Lives Matter campaign, the uproar over the nominations at this year’s Academy Awards and countless smaller, day-to-day examples are all part of a societal syndrome that is particularly insidious because individuals do not believe it exists. If the situation seems insurmountable, it’s not. It is daunting, yes, but never hopeless. So how does one combat this problem? In order to solve a systemic issue, the solution must also be systemic, and that is why one approach to that end – Black History Month – is so important.

Beginning in the ’20s as only a week-long celebration, the event expanded into the form we know today after becoming officially recognized by the government as Black History Month during the United States Bicentennial in 1976. Since then, people have begun to wonder if a specific celebration of the achievements of Black Americans is necessary or even significant.

“As far as I’m concerned, every day is part of Black History Month,” says Aukram Burton, former board member and current executive director of the Kentucky Center for African American Heritage. “Black history is American history,” he adds. “But Black History Month is also important because it is a time for Black people to celebrate themselves.”

And what a celebration it shall be. From January 19 to April 22, the KCAAH will feature The 2016 Women’s Artist Exhibition: The African Heritage Experience, which will display the work of some of Louisville’s most respected and talented artists such as Elmer Lucille Allen, Karen R. Davis, Barbara Tyson Mosley, Toya Northington and Nzingha Sweeney-Sheppard. Louisville visual artist Eugene Thomas will also have his own exhibit entitled “Remembrance,” as will photographs from the new and popular book, “Two Centuries of Black Louisville” by Mervin Aubespin, Ken Clay and J. Blaine Hudson. Both exhibits will be on display for the entire month of February.

Photo by Stephen Somerstein, Courtesy of Muhammad Ali Center

Photo by Stephen Somerstein, Courtesy of Muhammad Ali Center

Also throughout Black History Month, the KCAAH will hold a lecture series consisting of five talks. Participants will be introduced to human development from an African perspective and will also explore the effects of Africa’s history, particularly regarding colonialism, slavery and independence. They will spend time on present-day Africa, how Africans worldwide collectively resisted and, at times, rebelled against slavery and colonialism. Participants will examine the relationship between Africa and the African diaspora with special attention on the philosophy of Black consciousness and Black images in media. These lectures will take place at the KCAAH on Saturdays from February 6 to March 5. John Chenault, part-time instructor in the Pan-African Studies program at UofL, will lead most of the discussions. “We have to go to our respective communities to tell our stories,” Burton says, urging all who wish to learn about Black history to attend.

This call to the community is sorely needed. One Black Louisville man attests, “I think that Black History Month still has a place in our culture. I think it is good for everybody to learn about the contributions that many Blacks have made to our society in America. I think it’s not only informative for Caucasians and other peoples, but I also think that it has helped me as an African-American become more knowledgeable about African-American history. I think the thing I have learned the most from learning about African-American history is that the contributions of many Black people occurred way before 1965. Men such as Henry Bibb Marcus Garvey and W.E.B Dubois paved the way for the thinkers such as Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Jesse Jackson.”

Photo Courtesy of the Aukram Burton, RamImages.com

Photo Courtesy of the Aukram Burton, RamImages.com

John Walker, a current, music student at UofL, is a jazz musician and a student of African-American music. He is not a Black man, but he can offer some insight through the lens of music: “None of the music we have today would be the same without the influence of the captured Africans who were brought to the Americas as slaves. That includes jazz, blues, rock, pop, soul, gospel, rap, R&B – pretty much any American music. They weren’t allowed to bring anything on the ships with them, so all they had was their memory of their culture and their unique oral tradition. Music was sacred to the African culture, and so it was recreated and adapted wherever they landed including the States and island nations. It was then passed down and changed through generations of a people who never asked to come to America. This is especially remarkable when consideration is given to how much oppression and destruction of their culture happened. In a time when the United States is struggling with it’s national identity, it’s important to realize how much African and African-American music has contributed to something as lasting and profound as the music we all listen to.”

Keith Brooks is a former Louisvillian, former co-coordinator for Fairness Campaign and current communications associate at ALIGN: The Alliance for a Greater New York. He cautions against slavery being the only depiction of Black history told: “I think [Black History Month’s] importance is more critical than ever because the contemporary erasure or retelling of Black history is common due to the prevalence of white privilege. As a recent example, a children’s storybook about George Washington’s birthday was recently pulled by Scholastic. In the book, it depicted two of his slaves, a father and daughter who were scrambling to make him a birthday cake, as colorful and happy, which is a stark contrast to the reality of those living in slavery at the time. The notion that an event from an entirely tragic era of American history that affected Black Americans can be rewritten, for educational purposes, is deeply troubling to me and speaks to the need for a more radical and accurate narrative around our history.”

There are so many stories to be told that do not revolve around slavery, each one more resonant than the next. One doesn’t even have to look beyond the Commonwealth. Anna Mac Clarke from Lawrenceburg, Kentucky joined the Women’s Army Corps of the U.S. Army in 1942, becoming the first African-American woman to be a commanding officer of an otherwise all-white regiment. She broke gender barriers and conquered race barriers when the United States military was still segregated. Moneta Sleet Jr. from Owensboro, Kentucky was the first Black man to win the Pulitzer Prize, winning it for Feature Photography in 1969.  Millersburg, Kentucky’s Mae Jones Street Kidd was an innovative businesswoman, a civic leader and a skilled politician working in public relations, serving in the Red Cross during World War II as well as serving as a member of the Kentucky House of Representatives from 1968 to 1984, representing Louisville’s 41st state legislative district. Of course, there’s also a man you may have heard of called Cassius Clay.

Artwork in he 2016 Women’s Artist Exhibition: The African Heritage Experience, from January 19th to April 22, 2016. Featuring artists:  Elmer Lucille Allen, Karen R. Davis, Barbara Tyson Mosley, Toya Northington and Nzingha Sweeney-Sheppard.

Artwork in he 2016 Women’s Artist Exhibition: The African Heritage Experience, from January 19th to April 22, 2016. Featuring artists: Elmer Lucille Allen, Karen R. Davis, Barbara Tyson Mosley, Toya Northington and Nzingha Sweeney-Sheppard.

The Muhammad Ali Center is Louisville’s shining tribute to the legendary boxer, and they dedicate their efforts to honor him and his legacy. Jeanie Kahnke, vice president of communications for the Muhammad Ali Center, asks those interested in learning about Black history to attend their first Black Film Festival as well as an exhibit on Martin Luther King Jr.’s march from Selma to Montgomery, featuring pieces from the Smithsonian. Both the Film Festival and the exhibit are open through the end of February, and patrons of the Ali Center can learn more at alicenter.org.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s story is another that is well-known to most, but there are details that have been lost over time. “Black History Month provides an opportunity for us to learn about other figures and stories that are obscured. Bayard Rustin, for example, was one of MLK’s advisors, who inspired him to learn about the teachings of Ghandi and helped shape his famous speech – and he was also an openly gay man. He encouraged Dr. King to be more intersectional in uniting movements in his work, such as the rising LGBTQ movement at the time, but often his story is lost,” informs Brooks, also adding, “We can also look at Marsha P. Johnson, a Black transwoman who played an integral role in the Stonewall Riots, which kicked off the modern LGBTQ movement in this country, or Angela Davis, who helped reshape the feminist movement. What would the literary world be without the contributions of bell hooks, Alice Walker or James Baldwin? Or the sciences without Charles Drew, who reshaped the system of blood transfusions and storage, which saved countless lives in WWII? Or a world without Beyonce, who is universally one of the most successful artists of our generation? The depth and diversity within Black history touches all of us, and should be celebrated – not only to reframe how America’s history is told, but also because Black lives are constantly filled with grief and injustice. Black History Month is needed more than ever … One month is not enough to combat these things, but it is a profound step in the right direction.”

The list, it seems, can go on and on, and in and of itself, this is a wonderful thing. “For hundreds of years, we decided Black people were not considered worth remembering. Property isn’t capable of achievement. Non-citizens are by definition not us and therefore don’t deserve a place in our collective memory according to Dred Scott v. Sanford. We were never told the names of our people who built this country under inhumane conditions, sacrificing their culture, their ambitions and their humanity. We would prefer to forget that we created impossible odds for success by denying access to education, healthcare and wealth. And so we set aside a month to try to remember, to find the names, to acknowledge the humanness of our ancestors in the hopes that their history becomes our history. #Saytheirname because they matter,” says Janelle Rae, director of Multicultural Services at Spalding University. Find these people. Learn about them. Remember them this month. Remember them every month. VT

Keep Saying Their Names

One January 30, 2016, two of Kentucky’s shining lights for civil rights went out. Former Kentucky senator and author of “The Last Days of Martin Luther King Jr.,” Georgia Davis Powers was the first African-American and the first woman to serve on the Kentucky Senate, where she served for 21 years starting in 1968. Benjamin Shobe was Jefferson County’s first African-American circuit court judge as well as a decorated and celebrated attorney. Both individuals were instrumental in the local arm of the Civil Rights Movement. They will be missed, but their accomplishments will live on.