The role of Black History Month is being questioned by a growing number of Americans.
“Black History Month is extremely important in that it gives us a time to pause and consider and remember the contributions of those who came before us,” says Ted Johnson, an African-American writer who focuses on issues of race and politics. “But if that’s the extent of what the month celebrates, then it’s falling short of what young people and black people — in fact, the nation — need today. And that is to be able to see the value of black lives, which has been the source of much of the protests here in the past few months.”
He believes it’s time for Black History Month to evolve, past the normal lessons about famous civil rights leaders like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr., to explore and celebrate the unique stories of African-Americans around the country.
“It’s not sufficient to celebrate things that happened 50, 60, 100 years ago and then pat ourselves on the back because we celebrated some extraordinary individuals. Instead I think it should be a time when we appreciate those individuals continuing the work that have come before us,” said Johnson.
Images of the 2014 protests over the shooting of unarmed black teen Michael Brown by a white policeman in Ferguson, Missouri, and the death of Eric Garner in New York City look very similar to the civil rights protests of the 1950s and ’60s. Johnson believes that even though times have changed, there are a lot of areas of race in America that remain the same.
“If you look at the black unemployment rate in the ’60s that spurred the March on Washington, the black unemployment rate is still twice the rate as the rest of the country,” he said. “Income inequality is bad. Household wealth [disparity] is detrimental for folks. If you look at segregation in the school system and in housing, not much has changed since 1960. So when we look at the young folks who are marching today, it’s not that they’ve forgotten their black history. In fact, they’re living it.”
It’s particularly notable in suburbs of the nation’s largest metro areas, which have seen their poor populations grow more than 65 percent since 2000 — more than twice the pace of growth in cities. It makes the suburbs home to the largest and fastest growing poor population in the country.
Inequality and the wealth gap for African-Americans isn’t a new story. It’s an issue that was deeply important to King decades ago.
“Black history doesn’t mean it’s historical,” said Johnson. “It means there’s an appreciation for things that have happened in the past and we should appreciate the inspiration that has gotten us here today.”