Each February, the U.S. celebrates Black History Month, highlighting the rich heritage, extraordinary achievements and unique culture of African Americans throughout our nation’s history.
As our 2020 celebration comes to its conclusion, we sat down with JumpStart’s Chief Inclusion and Outreach Officer Lamont Mackley for a conversation about life before Black History Month, how the celebration has evolved through the generations and whether we’ll ever see a day where the contributions of Black Americans are celebrated all year round.
Black History Month became a formal celebration in the 1970’s. Your education and early career go back farther. What did this celebration look like before it became more widely recognized?
Long before there was a month dedicated to celebrating black history, there was a focus on black history in the black community. When I was young, this tradition was very strong in segregated schools. It wasn’t a formal celebration of course, but the community did what it could to teach us about black people who had done great things even through a history of enslavement. Religious leaders of the time were also instrumental in keeping these stories alive.
Coming out of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, the idea of “Black Pride” really began to gain traction in our community. To me, the formal recognition of Black History Month grew out of this desire to not only celebrate within the community, but to publicly address the centuries of indoctrination that black people were “less than.” We felt it was important to show that even though our history and culture had been repressed and devalued—we’re still here and are worthy of being here.
Some people we’ve spoken with have conflicting feelings about Black History Month. They appreciate the celebration but feel Black history is still largely deemphasized in American culture. What do you think about this dichotomy?
I understand the conflicting feelings and I can appreciate them. For me, it comes down to the fact that I am fundamentally a celebratory person. I believe it’s important to take time to celebrate things of significance. Scripture talks about this as well—the idea of dedicating time to count your blessings and reflect on the good things in your life.
It’s not that I don’t see the struggle, but I choose to focus on the positive intentions of the celebration and the way it has elevated the conversation about the Black American experience. also, it is important to remember the impact Black History Month can have outside our community, where many people still don’t know and aren’t taught our history. Every single time someone learns something new it represents another opportunity to build a bridge.
What is the very first thing that pops into your mind when you hear the word Black History?
It’s hard to understand the full meaning of Black History Month without acknowledging how much black history was covered up or distorted or lost or just flat out destroyed over the past 400 years.
For so long there was such an active effort to sever our connection to our own heritage and instill the belief that we were something less—less than human in some cases. And this idea has done incredible damage—not only institutionally, but to the Black American psyche. It can create a real crisis of self-worth. Hearing the truth of Black History is one of the first steps toward rebuilding this connection.
Do you see any interesting generational differences in how Black Americans view Black History Month?
I think there is a sense of normalcy at this point that makes many younger African Americans see Black History Month as sort of safe and par for the course. They may not remember it in the special way I do, but that’s not rare. I’m sure those who came before me saw things the same way. It’s actually a sign of progress in many ways.
Where I’ve seen younger generations really stepping up is the knowledge piece. They aren’t just celebrating Black History Month, they are actively educating others—not only on our past contributions to American culture, but on our continued struggle for inclusion and equity. I think that’s incredibly valuable to the cause and it’s very inspiring to see.
Do you think this month of celebration has helped us make any significant progress toward racial equity? Is Black History Month today more or less meaningful than it was 20 or 30 years ago?
As the newness has worn off and new generations no longer remember a nation without Black History Month, I can see why people ask this question. But I think it’s just as meaningful today—in the sense that we need it today as much as we needed it in the 1970s.
I hope we someday get to the point where we’re comfortable sharing the full spectrum of American history every day. Maybe at that point, future generations will look back and wonder why we ever needed a month like this; but I’ll be long gone by the time it happens. In the meantime, I choose to spend this month celebrating the historic progress we’ve made and advocating for the new progress we need.
Interested in learning more about Black History Month? Check out these additional resources:
- This Is How February Became Black History Month
- 28 Days, 28 Films For Black History Month
- Why Carter G. Woodson Is The ‘Father of Black History’