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Feb 12, 2015 | The Rev. Canon Glenice Robinson-Como

Robinson-Como: Why We Celebrate Black History Month

"When you control a man's thinking you do not have to worry about his actions. You do not have to tell him not to stand here or go yonder. He will find his "proper place" and will stay in it. You do not need to send him to the back door. He will go without being told. In fact, if there is no back door, he will cut one for his special benefit. His education makes it necessary." - Dr. Carter G. Woodson, “The Miseducation of the Negroe”

Glenice Robinson-Como

As the first African slaves were brought to Jamestown, Virginia in 1619, they stepped on foreign soil into a system that would redefine who and what they were. Forever gone were their family names, traditions and culture; forever gone was the pride that had been instilled in each of them. An identity that was once connected by bloodlines was now almost untraceable.  From that point on, they became women and men without the hope of being anything more than property.

The members of this caste were also the victims of identity theft. From the slave trade, they found themselves lost in a foreign land, living among others Africans who spoke different languages and originated from different tribes. Traveling through this middle passage, the lives they once knew became faded memories, tossed overboard and lost at sea forever.  

Those who were forced into slavery became “strange fruit” (as described in the Billie Holiday song) and part of a social system that forced adaptation. Their identities were defined through the perception of slave owners. But through it all – stolen from the shores of Africa and stripped of their heritage and their place – this courageous group of Africans eventually reshaped and redefined their lives in America.

"For Africa to me... is more than a glamorous fact. It is a historical truth. No man can know where he is going unless he knows exactly where he has been and exactly how he arrived at his present place."
Dr. Maya Angelou, author and poet 

At the dawn of the twentieth century, most people presumed that African-Americans had little history besides their subjugation in slavery. Carter G. Woodson, a son of slaves, received a bachelor and master’s degree from the University Of Chicago and in 1912, became the second African-American to receive a PhD from Harvard University. Woodson recognized the scarcity of information of blacks and founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. In 1926, he initiated the celebration of Negro History Week, which corresponded with the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. In 1976 this celebration was expanded to include the entire month of February. 

Woodson, remembered as the Father of Black History, began to shed light on the richness of the African-American experience. He understood the need to change the perception of African-Americans and to increase their self-worth. He wanted to free black history from the bias of whites in order to present blacks as true active participants in history. The rewards of doing this proved invaluable. It allowed blacks to begin to identify who they were for themselves and to begin to promote social change. An awareness of African-American history is informative for everyone because it shares the contributions of many unsung heroes and she-roes who made their mark in America but still remained unnoticed.

Black History Month informs all of us of a rich history where God intervened and led a people of faith into the promised land. This promised land erased identity theft so that African Americans could redefine and re-establish themselves as equals among all people. This month of celebration is a time to recognize the gifts of those who have gone before us. It acknowledges those whose backs we now stand upon and forces prejudice from the cracks and crevices that still plague communities across America. Black History is relevant to everyone because it invites all of us to rethink how we can be challenged to imagine a different world, a better world, for all of God’s people.

I believe Dr. Woodson would feel that we still have much work to accomplish. We still must lift up the contributions of African-Americans as a model for our children and for future generations. We still must realize the content and character of a person cannot be tied to ethnicity alone. 

I invite all of you to celebrate the advancements that have been made in our great country by African-Americans, realizing that a month is not enough time to remove the veils of hatred that still exist. May we each be encouraged to work toward our promised land, where all are needed to truly make this the land of the free.  

 "Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.”
Harriet Tubman, African-American abolitionist and humanitarian

- The Rev. Glenice Robinson-Como is Canon Pastor at Christ Church Cathedral, Houston

For more articles on Black History or the African-American and Black experiences in The Episcopal Church, click here.