In 1926, Black historian Carter Woodson sent out a press release marking the first Black History Week in the United States. Fifty years later the commemoration was officially recognized when President Gerald Ford encouraged citizens to use the month of February to learn about and celebrate the long-neglected accomplishments and contributions of Black Americans. Woodson had originally chosen February for the event because Frederick Douglass, who had escaped slavery and became a key abolitionist and social reformer, and Abraham Lincoln, who had issued the Emancipation Proclamation, both were born in February.
At the Christian Reformed Church’s Office of Race Relations (ORR), we’re celebrating 50 years of working to dismantle racism by Christian Reformed churches and the denomination. Recognizing that the CRC is still a predominantly Euro-ethnic denomination, the ORR staff thought getting the insights of white people engaged in anti-racism work might provide unique views on the importance of Black History Month.
Louise Wing is the director of administration at ReFrame Ministries. She shared her personal reflections on the importance of Black History Month in a recent interview:
“As a white person of mostly European descent, I don’t stand out in the West Michigan communities I am or have been a part of—work, school, church, etc. I don’t consider how I may need to conform to “fit in” or if my appearance, the mere color of my skin, my hair style, my clothes, etc. may trigger racist behavior by others. Growing up, history books and lessons were filled with ample examples of white founding fathers, war heroes, governmental figures, influential people, etc. People of color were rarely mentioned.
Regarding the extent of Black history taught in my school, we learned whatever was in our selected textbooks and whatever chapters in the textbook the teacher included in his/her lesson plan. There were no guest speakers of color, no first-hand experiences heard. Rather Black history was in very limited quantity contained in books staff and administrators selected. The few prominent black figures I recall reading about as a child were Booker T. Washington and Harriet Tubman. Experiencing life through the eyes of a black or brown fellow student was only pursued if you didn’t fear the consequences of being ostracized. I was one who had no fear, and I think a few key experiences in elementary school helped shaped my passion for justice.
My upbringing is not unique in this community. Though my household members weren’t teaching a racist way of thinking when I was young (for which I am fortunate), I can’t say the same for a few members of my extended family at the time. What I wish I could say is that I was fortunate to learn more about other backgrounds and cultures and fully understand the extent of racism that was so horribly present as the nation formed a “more perfect union” as envisioned by white European settlers. By making available more extensive Black history, particularly first-hand experiences, future generations will have a full understanding as they work to create an anti-racist environment for their children. They will be able to end continued injustices.
As an attendee of the Sankofa experience in October 2019, I was so fortunate to hear first-hand experiences of those who were in Selma or Memphis during the Civil Rights Movement, one couple in particular who listened to Dr. King Jr’s last speech in Memphis. Learning more about Black history through multi-media experiences (museums, videos, exhibits, etc) as part of the trip made me realize my limited sources of information growing up and the selective way information was released. I am still in the infancy of my journey to learn more."
How do you think a focus on Black history can bless the unified body of Christ? We would love to hear your thoughts and stories about Black History Month. Send your comments to [email protected]