February is Black History Month in the United States.
February was chosen as Black History Month because since the U.S. Civil War, Black communities in the United States have combined celebrations of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday on February 12 and Frederick Douglass’ birthday on February 14.
The U.S. celebration got started at Kent State University in 1970. It spread to educational institutions across the country until it was officially recognized during the U.S. Bicentennial.
In criticism, actor Morgan Freeman has said, “Black history is American history.” And he is right.
Black history is American history.”Morgan Freeman, MSNBC, 2005
Without the contributions of African-Americans, our country would be unrecognizable. We also could not have achieved the preeminent status in the world that we have enjoyed until recently.
Black History Month has relevance for Latins too. Regardless of our skin color, Latin culture is very African. In fact, most of the Latin culture that we celebrate is African.
In the beginning we are all African. “If you’re not African, you’re not human.”
If you’re not African, you’re not human.”Keith Widyolar, New York Latin Culture Magazine, 2019
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Red, Yellow and Green
We represent Black History Month with the colors of the old flag of Ethiopia from the 1600s until 1914. These colors are respected across Africa and in the diaspora because they represent a people who defended themselves against colonial domination.
The Red obviously represents the blood spilled by our forefathers in self-defense. The Yellow represents peace and religious freedom. The Green represents the richness of Africa and hope.
The colors have been flipped on the flag since the Ethiopian Empire of 1914.
Many notable Americans have birthdays during Black History Month. In New York City, it’s also Dominican Heritage Month.
Arturo Alfonso Schomburg
Puerto Rican historian, writer, activist and Harlem Renaissance figure was born in Santurce, San Juan, Puerto Rico on January 24, 1874.
In the fifth grade, a teacher claimed that people of color have no history, no heroes or notable accomplishments. Of course, that is entirely wrong and completely ignorant. Demeaning people is a slaver’s tactic.
The American Negro must rebuild his past in order to make his future.”Arturo Alfonso Schomburg (Quoted from the first issue of the Civil Rights Journal)
The young Schomburg decided he would document Black history. His collection of African literature and art later became the core of the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem.
The lesson is to never let anyone else define you. We define ourselves through your character and behavior. What a great New Yorker, a great Puerto Rican, great American, great African and simply a great man.
Poet Langston Hughes was born in Joplin, Missouri on February 1, 1902.
I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.From “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” Langston Hughes, 1921
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans,
and I’ve seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset”
Rivers represent the passage of time. Hughes references the Euphrates where human civilization began in what is now Iraq. He references two of the great rivers of Africa, the Congo of Central Africa and the Nile of Egypt. The Mississippi is the great river of the United States with New Orleans at its mouth. New Orleans is a Caribbean city.
These rivers also represent great civilizations. In four sentences Hughes manages to connect us with four or five of the world’s great civilizations from the very beginning of human civilization to the present. Those are golden words.
Rosa Parks, the mother of the civil rights movement, was born in Tuskegee, Alabama on February 4, 1913. She became famous for refusing to give up her bus seat for a light-skinned person.
I don’t think I should have to stand up.”Rosa Parks on the bus in Montgomery Alabama, December 1, 1955
She didn’t argue, fight or make a ruckus. That is one noble woman, and those are nine noble words. The nobility of Ms. Parks and her nine simple words sparked a revolution.
Major League Baseball Hall of Famer Hank Aaron “Hammer” was born in Mobile, Alabama on February 5, 1934. Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s home run record in 1974. Barry Bonds broke Aaron’s record in 2007.
I’m hoping someday that some kid, black or white, will hit more home runs than myself. Whoever it is, I’d be pulling for him.”Hank Aaron
Aaron’s statement is important because he said that he will support whoever does better than him. It’s important to encourage achievement and effort. Too often we bring down our own and in doing so, we bring down our entire community. “Whoever it is, I’d be pulling for him.”
Abraham Lincoln, the American president who held our country together and legally ended slavery, was born in Hodgenville, Kentucky on February 12, 1809.
Those who deny freedom to others, deserve it not for themselves”Abraham Lincoln, Complete Works – Volume XII
American novelist Toni Morrison (“The Bluest Eye” (1970), “Song of Solomon” National Book Critics Circle Award (1977), “Beloved” Pulitzer Prize (1987), Nobel Prize in Literature (1993) was born in Lorain, Ohio on February 18, 1931.
You wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down.”Tony Morrison, “Song of Solomon” (1977)
The great American abolitionist, writer and statesman was born in February 1818 and died on February 20, 1895.
The soul that is within me no man can degrade.Frederick Douglass, traveling in Pennsylvania, quoted by Booker T. Washington in 1901
When people came to apologize because he was forced to ride a Pennsylvania train in the baggage car, Douglass made an important observation which is that nobody defines us, but ourselves.
Machito, Francisco Raúl Gutiérrez Grillo, the bandleader who with music director Mario Baúza created modern Latin jazz, was born in Havana, Cuba on February 16, 1908.
Tanga”Machito, “Tanga” (1942)
“Tanga” was first song to have the elements that we now recognize as Latin Jazz. Listen to the fanfare in the studio recording. You will hear it referenced in later Latin music.
That wasn’t the only important thing Machito did. Machito and his Afro-Cubans was the first band to promote the fact that they were black.
Writer W.E.B DuBois, one of the founders of the NAACP, was born in Great Barrington, Massachussetts on February 23, 1868.
Either America will destroy ignorance, or ignorance will destroy the United States.”W.E.B. Du Bois, Niagara Movement Speech, 1905
That sentence bears some serious thinking over today as we seem to accept a moment of ignorance to the extreme.
Rock and roll pioneer Antoine “Fats” Domino Jr. was born in New Orleans, Louisiana on February 26, 1928.
They call, they call me the fat manFats Domino, The Fat Man, 1949
‘Cause I weigh two hundred pounds
All the girls, they love me
‘Cause I know my way around”
Fats was playing around. New Orleans is a Caribbean city and Caribbean culture has this tradition of ribald boasting. A lot of Caribbean food has double meaning too. We’re not sure how to play it in #MeToo time, but in the Caribbean it’s generally just playful.
The blues is the root of all the popular music of the Americas. The blues and the blue note are African. From the blues we get jazz, U.S. country music, swing, rock, hip-hop and everything that followed. America got the blues through the Caribbean which gives us Latin jazz, salsa, reggaeton and Latin trap. I guess we know our way around.
So that is just a little of what’s going on with Black History Month.