Senior: ‘Black history is American history’

School plays part in honoring both past, present

Senior Gabe Ratcliffe reads an original work for the Black History Month assembly.

Mary Stempky

Senior Gabe Ratcliffe reads an original work for the Black History Month assembly.

Sara Kress, Co-Culture Editor

February is an entire month devoted to the celebration of black history. Welcome to Black History Month.

Mr. Ken Barlow, vice president for community affairs and diversity, said, “The importance of Black History Month really is to bring awareness, information and celebration about the contributions of African-Americans in American culture to the community at large.”

Barlow said that the main way that the school celebrates Black History Month is through the Black History Month assembly, which took place on Feb. 5. The assembly is always focused on a specific theme and features a keynote speaker. Barlow said, “The theme for our assembly this year was ‘Rising from the Ashes,’ based off the keynote speaker who was from the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. The speaker, Mrs. Carolyn McKinstry, shared her experiences, as she was present at the bombing of the church in 1963.

In addition to the assembly, Barlow also organized a Black History Month dinner, which took place on Feb. 8. Before the event, Barlow said, “We’re going to have a traditional Black American dinner, which will be mac ‘n’ cheese, green beans, peach cobbler and fried chicken,” Barlow said.

The entertainment during the dinner was to involve the recitation of a spoken word poetic voice and the singing of the Black National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” by sophomore Janay Zak. “I’m sure everyone will chime in and sing along with her,” Barlow said.

“Then we will move from the Student Life Center into the auditorium,” Barlow said. “On the program in the auditorium is our gospel choir in collaboration with Mount Olive Baptist Church’s choir. We will also celebrate 43 African-American seniors for their academic achievements; we call them tomorrow’s leaders. And then we’re going to celebrate two of our African-American alumni, Miss Katrina Merriweather ’97 and Mr. John Jeter, who’s our keynote speaker, for their professional achievements respectively in athletics and journalism.”

Barlow said, “The theme is ‘Leaning into Discomfort’ and our keynote speaker will share information about his travels being an African-American journalist around the world.”

Although the school provides many opportunities for students to celebrate Black History Month, there are many opportunities available outside of the school as well.

Barlow said, “Around the city there’s a lot of different organizations that have acknowledgement. Some of them have specific themes acknowledging specific individual achievements in the African-American community. Some of them aren’t historical, some of them are present day, so they will be honoring specific people connected to an institution. They do pretty much the same thing that we do in acknowledgement and celebration of those achievements and those people, present day and historical figures.”

According to Barlow, Black History Month has been recognized by the U.S. government since 1976. The celebration was originally an expansion of Black History Week, which had not been nationally recognized. “There was a gentleman back in the 1920s, Carter G. Woodson, who actually initiated the idea of Black History Week. He picked February because it was around Abraham Lincoln’s birthday and Fredrick Douglass’s birthday,” Barlow said.

Since 1976, Black History Month has gained more acknowledgment every year. Senior Brittney Levingston, a member of the Black Student Union, said that recognition is a crucial part of Black History Month. She said, “You can really just celebrate Black History Month by going out of your way to try and learn something about African-American history at least once or twice a week.”

However, while Levingston encourages people to learn about black history this month, she does not want that understanding to end the minute the calendar flips to March. “I do think that we shouldn’t limit our knowledge and learning of African-Americans to Black History Month,” she said. “I also don’t think that we should necessarily keep learning about the same people we have been learning about since the third grade. Rosa Parks, MLK, those names get thrown around a lot, and a lot of important African-American history is not necessarily as put in the spotlight as I think it maybe should be.”

Barlow does his part in increasing knowledge of the role African-Americans have had in American history. Every day during February he updates his social media platforms with descriptions of different African-American individuals. He said, “Three days ago I did the African-American Muslim community, then I did the social activist community, and on Super Bowl Sunday I did African-American coaches in pro football.”

Both Barlow and Levingston agree that the acknowledgement of Black History Month is especially important in light of recent social movements such as Black Lives Matter. Levingston said, “I think that a lot of people forget that peaceful protests have always been a part of African-American history in the United States. We still see that happening now. Regardless of the strides we have made, there still is injustice, there still are things that we need to overcome, but there also is this resounding hope within the African-American community that has been there and hopefully always will be there.”

Barlow expressed similar views. “Social justice issues are always relevant. I think it’s just important that people are conscientious of the contributions and the struggles and oppressions that still exist in our country,” he said. 

Black History Month is important because it looks at the past in a way that can benefit the future. Barlow said, “I think there’s a historical portion to Black History Month, there’s a present day portion, and then there’s always a futuristic look at it.”

He continued, “Hopefully we can continue to grow as a country and we can be more intentional about being more inclusive in terms of teaching in curriculums – in particular English and history classes – a more holistic approach to American history, which includes African-Americans.”

Levingston also said she hopes for a more well-rounded view of Black History Month in the future. She said, “I think the biggest misconception is the fact that black history is only black history. Black history is American history.”