In 1926, Dr. Carter G. Woodson, an African America historian, initiated “Negro History Week” to recognize the contributions of black people that were all too often overlooked in historical texts. Today, we celebrate Black History Month in February to acknowledge the accomplishments of black people. Although the achievements of black people are many, they are often contrasted with numerous injustices when looking at the past.
One cannot ignore the horrors of the trans-Atlantic slave trade that brought African people to the Americas. Nor can we dispel the humiliation black people endured after years of servitude while being treated like second-class citizens. Though it is difficult to accept, denying the inequities of the past is as much a problem as ignoring the achievements.
Throughout history, black people have made numerous contributions to civilization. The sophisticated African systems of mathematics used to build the pyramids were later appropriated by others. Ibn Battuta, the Moroccan explorer of the 14th century, travelled to more places than Marco Polo. The invention of the light bulb in 1879 would not have been possible without Lewis Latimar’s carbon filament. More recently, George Carruthers invented the far ultraviolet electrographic camera that was used in the 1972 Apollo 16 mission to capture images of the Earth’s outer atmosphere and deep space objects. These are just a few examples of the great things black people have done.
It has now become part of black history tradition to enumerate the many contributions to progress and industry made by black people. Less often recognized are the subtle achievements of the adaptations black people have made when encountering new and unusual circumstances.
Black people were originally from Africa, but they have made their home in virtually all habitable parts of the world. What many people alive today don’t realize is that every human being on the planet originates in Africa. Up until 1987, most people believed that humans in different geographic areas evolved separately. But with a greater understanding of human genetics, along with corroborating fossil evidence, we can now trace every human lineage back to a single woman who lived 200,000 years ago in Africa. Mitochondrial Eve, the mother of humanity, was black.
What would have Dr. Woodson said to this groundbreaking discovery? Would he have continued to find ways to elevate black people in history? Or would he have pursued another course of action that would demonstrate to people that colour is subordinate to our shared commonalities?
In many ways, Dr. Woodson’s ideas have merits that are still relevant today. It is important to remember our past and acknowledge beneficial contributions to society.
In the past, the atrocities we experienced were due to failing to see our own humanity in others. Through division, we committed deplorable acts that continue to traumatize and debilitate people. The whole idea of race was a socially-constructed phenomenon that was used to justify slavery, war and genocide. This phenomenon continues to elude us on our path to peace and justice.
It is not only important for us to recognize our achievements as a unified people, but it is also imperative for all of humanity to see that we are connected by more than just colour. No matter what colour we think we are, we can rest in the knowledge that we are all one people. And no matter where we go, we are not outsiders — we are home. We can all celebrate in the achievements of black people because we, as members of the human race, are better off because of them. Black History Month is something everyone can take part in because we are all part of the same human family.