Trillia Newbell: Why do we celebrate Black History Month?

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Monday, February 25th. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from listener-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. Next up, Trillia Newbell on why we celebrate Black History Month, and why it ought not to be merely a sorrowful descent into brokenness.

TRILLIA NEWBELL, COMMENTATOR: The Civil War was raging when an enslaved man named Robert Smalls devised a daring heist in 1862.

At just 23 years old, Smalls planned to sneak an armed transport ship out of Charleston Harbor and deliver it to Union blockade ships. More importantly, he wanted to free his family.

But to do that, he would have to get a noisy vessel through a series of heavily armed Confederate checkpoints.

On the evening of May 12th, the USS Planter’s three white officers went ashore to spend the night with their families. Smalls saw a chance to save his. He and the ship’s other enslaved crewmen launched from the dock, picked up nine family members nearby, and made for the checkpoints.

Wearing the captain’s straw hat, Smalls executed the correct whistles to pass—then brazenly called out the voice signal needed to clear Fort Sumter. Upon reaching the Union ships, they were free.

Robert Smalls’ heroism delivered a family, a ship, and valuable weapons, but it also helped convince President Abraham Lincoln to allow African-Americans to serve in the Union Army and Navy.

Sometimes people ask why we need to have a month dedicated to African-American culture and history. The obscurity of Robert Smalls’ story helps provide the answer: our history is often neglected, rarely discussed, and seldom celebrated.

And when black history is spoken of, it’s most often focused on the broken: slavery, the Jim Crow era, and discrimination.

For you and I to grow in understanding our current cultural moment, we must be willing to do some research. For example, when those pictures of the Virginia governor wearing blackface surfaced this month, it wasn’t a mere political controversy. There is a historical reason for the outrage and disappointment.

I won’t give you that history lesson now. But understanding it puts Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s photo alongside someone dressed in Ku Klux Klan attire into perspective. The outcry isn’t some overreaction. Rather it’s the sorrow of seeing a young man ignorantly using a symbol of hate and discrimination for entertainment.

At the same time, let’s be cautious not to narrowly focus our attention on the sorrowful aspects of American culture and history and call it Black History Month.

It’s great to honor people like Frederick Douglass, Rosa Parks, and Martin Luther King, Jr. They labored tirelessly and risked their lives to bring an end to unjust laws and practices. But our collective black history also includes inventors and writers and teachers and scientists.

So let’s also remember poets Langston Hughes and Phillis Wheatley.

Let’s remember 18th century pastor Lemuel Haynes—and 19th century pastor Francis Grimke.

Or how about Garrett Morgan, who in 1914 invented a “safety hood” that would later be used in World War I as a gas mask to protect soldiers.

Or maybe Dr. Charles Richard Drew, who pioneered America’s first large-scale blood bank during World War II.

Or Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman astronaut.

I could go on. There’s much to celebrate and learn! The only way to know these Hidden Figures—pun intended—is to research and look deeper into the stories of black Americans. This means relying on more than those couple of lessons you learned in school. Find those names and people less familiar and learn about them.

That’s when we will truly begin to celebrate black history in our country.

For WORLD Radio, I’m Trillia Newbell.

(Photo/PBS) Robert Smalls

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

Like this story?

To hear a lot more like it, subscribe to The World and Everything in It via iTunes, Overcast, Stitcher, or Pocket Casts.







Pocket Casts

(Requires a fee)

One comment on “Trillia Newbell: Why do we celebrate Black History Month?

  1. Kara says:

    Thanks for the post! I’m looking forward to looking up those I never heard of.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.