Happy Black History Month! Before diving into the impact of ever-changing language, let’s start with some fast facts about these 28 days in February.
- The first iteration of Black History Month was Negro History Week in 1926 and was sponsored by the organization now known as Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH.)
- The ASALH was founded in 1915 by Dr. Carter G. Woodson and Jesse E. Moorland in 1915; Woodson is often referred to as ‘The Man Behind Black History Month.’
- That first Negro History Week was intentionally placed during the second week of February to coincide with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.
- Celebrations spread through the country as cities began recognizing Negro History Week, which led to many college campuses extending their observance and evolving the name to Black History Month in the late 60’s.
- Black History Month was officially recognized by President Gerald Ford in 1976, proclaiming that this was an opportunity to “honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”
- Since 1928, Black History Month has had an associated theme. They range from ‘The Negro in Democracy ’ (1942) to ‘Changing the Afro American Image through History’ (1969) and most recently, ‘The Black Family: Representation, Identity, and Diversity.’ The theme for Black History Month in 2022 is ‘Black Health and Wellness.’
Language is a tricky thing, especially when we are talking about race. For many people, half of the battle of even getting comfortable talking about race is that we aren’t given the appropriate language to talk about it as a construct. Despite the multitude of ways that people might identify their race, the United States Census Bureau only officially recognizes six races (White, Black or African American, American Indian/Alaska Native, Asian, Native Hawaiin & Other Pacific Islander, and Two or more races.) In many ways, how we talk about race is dictated by how race is taught to us. And, as demonstrated by the points above, how we have talked about Black people both formally and informally has changed a number of times.
Racial identity can be a complex topic, and I want to make sure that I emphasize that no one group is monolithic and what is true for some people of a certain identity is not true for all people of a certain identity. However, one of the most interesting facets of the discussion on race as it relates to Black people is the choice between using ‘Black’ or ‘African American.’ However, these two expressions are not inherently interchangeable.
The evolution of these ethnonyms, or words applied to a given ethnic group, is a truly fascinating one that largely centers around a push and pull for the recognition of Black humanity. For many non-Black people, the default to using ‘African American’ was because it was the more ‘appropriate’ version of ‘Negro’ or ‘colored.’ This was also encouraged by the 1988 declaration by Reverend Jesse Jackson that Black people prefer to be identified as African American. However, the contemporary push to move towards ‘Black’ as the catch-all term for people within the African (or Black) Diaspora is in large part to recognize that we are a multi-faceted group of people.
Part of an individual’s preference to identify as ‘Black’ over ‘African American’ is a sociopolitical and historical choice – because of the lasting impact of the slave trade, many Black people cannot trace their roots back to a specific country in Africa, save for the use of ancestry kits. For other individuals, ‘African American’ is a legitimate misnomer. The migration of Black people means that there are people within the Black Diaspora that are from Jamaica, from the Caribbean, from the Dominican Republic, from Haiti, and many other places. Racially, folks from the Afro-Latino or Afro-Caribbean communities may likely identify as Black, however referring to them as ‘African American’ is only correct to the extent that all modern humans could potentially be traced back to Africa.
Language is constantly evolving and how we use words, specifically, how we use words to talk about race matters more than we think. And despite how often the word ‘Black’ is whispered, as if it is a slur, it isn’t a bad thing to say. In fact, it’s probably the most appropriate thing to say. Are there moments when a person may be corrected? Absolutely. But that’s part of why, as a society, we have to get comfortable talking about race and be prepared to be corrected if and when we misspeak.
And speaking of corrections, the final take-home message is to always capitalize the ‘B’ in Black. Not just because it brings it in-line with other racial identifiers like Asian American, African American, or Indigenous American, but because the Associated Press style guide says so. The announcement was made in June of 2020 that it is a best practice to honor ‘“an essential and shared sense of history, identity and community among people who identify as Black, including those in the African diaspora and within Africa. The lowercase black is a color, not a person.”
To learn more about Black History Month, check out these links:
- Association for the Study of African American Life and History
- com’s Black History Month Landing Page