Black History Month: Ask the Experts

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Black History Month is a time to celebrate, to honor, and importantly, to learn.

To help expand our knowledge about Black history this February, we turned to three experts in the field – City Colleges professors Dr. Zoe Franklin, Curtis Keyes, Jr., and Dr. Daniel Davis – for their insights and perspective.

From the origins of Black History Month, to what’s different about this year’s celebration, read their Q&A on the past, present, and future of teaching Black history below.

Meet the Experts:

Dr. Zoe Franklin is a Professor of African American Studies and the Former Chair of the Social Science and Africana Studies Department at Olive-Harvey College.

Curtis Keyes, Jr. is a Professor of Africana Studies and History at Olive-Harvey College.

Dr. Daniel Davis is a Professor of African American Studies at Kennedy-King College.

Dr. Zoe Franklin
Dr. Daniel Davis
Curtis Keyes, Jr.

Q:  What are the origins of Black History Month?

  • Professor Keyes:  Carter Godwin Woodson, Ph.D., a distinguished author, editor, publisher, and founder of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, believed that African Americans “should know their past in order to participate intelligently in the affairs in our country.” With the support of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc., Woodson founded Negro History Week in 1926. At the fiftieth-year mark in 1976, the celebration of Negro History Week became Black History Month.

Q:  Why is it important that everyone learns about and celebrates Black history?

  • Dr. Franklin:  It is vital that everyone learns Black history so they know that Black people have contributed to the building of this country and beyond. When we see what has been created in the past, we can use those models for improving the world of the future. Further, it’s important to celebrate Black history to demonstrate the best of the Black experience and its people’s contribution to the forward flow of human existence.
  • Dr. Davis:  Celebrating Black history will make people of all races more tolerant, accepting, and understanding of others. If you are “Black” or African American, understanding your history will increase your self-esteem and positively impact your expectations in life.

Q:  Which Black historical figures should people know that they may not be familiar with currently?

  • Professor Keyes:
    • Lewis H. Latimer helped invent the lightbulb.
    • Callie House led one of the first organizations calling for reparations for African Americans shortly after the abolition of slavery.
    • James L. Shelton was the first African American police officer in Chicago, appointed in 1871.
    • Grace Wilson was the first African American female police officer in Chicago, appointed in 1918.

Q:  What about prominent Black figures in today’s society?

  • Dr. Davis:  Marvin Ellison is one of only 19 Black CEOs in the history of the Fortune 500. He is currently the CEO of Lowe’s and the only Black person to ever be the CEO of two different Fortune 500 companies, also serving as the former CEO of JCPenney. I think he’s a good person to highlight because more African Americans need to know that “mainstream” corporations and businesses are led by Black people. It’s problematic that African Americans are not often perceived as leaders in corporate spaces. Ellison’s success could serve as a point of inspiration for students and an example that they may not be familiar with. I’m all about broadening our students’ points of reference.

Q:  What is something that your African American Studies students are surprised to learn?

  • Dr. Franklin:  Students are surprised to learn that women played major roles in the African American struggle for freedom. Furthermore, African American women were and are inventors, from improvements to the ironing board made by Sarah Boone, to the home security system that was created by Marie Van Brittan Brown.
  • Dr. Davis:  Most of my students never knew that Africa is the birthplace of science, mathematics, medicine, schools, military, astronomy, and more. They are equally shocked to learn that 85-90% of African Americans are directly from West Africa, which was home to arguably the last dynastic era of Africa’s history. It’s revelatory for many of them when they realize these amazing individuals are their ancestors.

Q:  How is Black History Month different in 2021?

  • Professor Keyes:  I believe there’s a heightened sense of awareness around Black History Month this year that extends beyond the broader African American community. The protests for racial justice last summer after the horrific deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, coupled with the contentious U.S. Presidential election, have brought focus to anti-Black racism in ways that are reminiscent of the civil rights protests of the 1960s.
  • Dr. Davis:  In response to that increased attention, it is imperative that we carefully consider which aspects of Black history we highlight and what messages we intend to put into the world.

Q:  How can educators and those in the media do a better job of teaching Black history all year long?

  • Dr. Davis:  The main problem is that Black history is usually taught beginning with the enslavement era. The continuous omission of pre-colonial African history reinforces the negative stereotypes about African descendants because it eliminates the possibility for an individual to place the circumstances, experiences, and culture of Black people within its proper context. Absent this context, we can’t sufficiently celebrate the strength, brilliance, resiliency, and beauty of the African diaspora. And perhaps just as importantly, we are denied causal explanations for the unfortunate condition we disproportionately find ourselves in today.

Q:  What else should we have asked you?

  • Professor Keyes:  What book am I currently reading? President Barack Obama’s latest memoir, A Promised Land.