When I was a just a kiddo, every year in February, Math and Reading assignments would come down off my elementary school walls and be replaced with pictures of black leaders such as Shirley Chisholm, George Washington Carver, Madam C. J. Walker, and of course, Martin Luther King Jr. The occasion would also be met with a project of some sort (I vividly remember making fake blood plasmas in fourth grade to represent for Dr. Charles Drew). These annual doings marked Black History Month. And it was an event.
Often, new modern faces were selectively added to the line-up of esteemed black leaders. Mae Jemison, Michael Jordan, and Oprah Winfrey were a few I recall being inducted and stapled on the classroom walls; but looking back I wonder, why them? What makes a person deserving enough to be a Black History Month figure?
First, let’s chop it up for a second about Black History Month. Created in 1926 it was initially known as “Negro History Week”. Conceived by Carter G. Woodson, a renowned African-American historian, seven days were set aside (the second week in February) to focus on black Americans and their accomplishments - something Woodson felt was grossly omitted from educational studies. In 1976, it was extended to the entire month of February.
It’s important to note that Black History Month (formerly “Negro History Week”) was based on the idea of it being implemented into educational curriculums. This explains the strong, and mostly primary, existence in schools. Woodson wanted young kids coming up to know that black people are brilliant and are making extreme contributions to human progress like everyone else.
So what makes one worthy enough to be reflected upon during Black History Month? I have three ideas.
Photo: Bob Adelman/Miami Herald
The race wars of the 1960s produced some of our most prominent Black History Month leaders. The rebellion against segregation at the time placed a spotlight on the powerful voices who fought for racial equality. In today’s time, the #BlackLivesMatter movement has similarly and uniquely featured the rise of figures like Shaun King and DeRay Mckesson through digital outlets.
Seth Godin, an entrepreneur among many other things, said on the podcast Design Matters that, “The Rev. Martin Luther King could’ve lived in any other time, but he wouldn’t have been him. He was him because there were a group of people who were ready [to follow at that time].” I would agree.
Whether verbal or visual, the message of a Black History Month figure has to be forward-moving and positive. Lil Wayne is a popular figure when it comes to African-Americans in the arts, but the way he was wildin’ out on Nightline in 2016 wouldn't make him an ideal candidate to be praised during the 28 (or 29) days. On the other hand, singer John Legend never falters and consistently uses his platform to bring awareness to the racial injustices of today. Nobody is perfect, but the constant desire to say, do and create things that inspire other blacks to be better is an absolute must as a Black History Month leader.
If you were sprayed by a firehose, spit on, beaten and locked up in jail, would you be boss enough to push forward with your purpose, or would you chunk them deuces up? Nelson Mandela didn’t. Rosa Parks didn’t. John Lewis definitely didn’t.
Today, the adversities may not be as extreme, but how can you not be inspired by someone like Beyoncé, who used her platform in 2016 to repeatedly celebrate blackness, despite the backlash she received from critics who felt the imagery was extra, unnecessary and out of line for her as an artist?
Pushing through fierce obstacles to accomplish a mission (or spread a message) that benefits a larger body of people is the mark of any great leader, especially a black one.
When stepping back and observing those three elements of a Black History Month figure, there are many great names that can be honored today, and we have the Harriet Tubmans' and Malcolm Xs' of years past to thank for that. Their momentous life contributions have allowed the space for many black leaders to emerge in numerous fields, and use their moments in time to push through challenges to powerfully spread inspiring and black life changing messages. Elevating the black community and culture is the gift that a true Black History Month figure gives.