In 1926, historian and scholar Carter G. Woodson declared the second week in February Negro History Week in commemoration of the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. At the same time Woodson was declaring the value and importance of Black Americans’ contributions to American society and culture, the U.S. was in the throes of reorganizing and reinforcing its racial caste system through legislative and physical violence including Jim Crow laws, the Tuskegee experiments, forced sterilization, and lynchings.
In the face of unimaginable hatred and segregation, African Americans publicly and proudly declared the inviolability of their lives and the importance of their heritage to American society. This tradition grew from a week-long observance to the month-long celebration of Black history, culture, art, and most importantly, resistance and resilience that we now call Black History Month in 1976 through a proclamation from President Gerald Ford.
It may be difficult to feel celebratory about Black History Month in 2017 when so much of what the brave freedom fighters, innovators and culture-shifters struggled for — struggles that gave way to the ideas of inclusivity, justice and fairness, which we commemorate during this month — feel under political and ideological attack. But it is exactly this reason that we must remember the brave and prophetic words of Black lesbian author, poet and visionary Audre Lorde:
and when we speak
we are afraid
our words will not be heard
but when we are silent
we are still afraid.
So it is better to speak
we were never meant to survive
Lorde reminds us that the very purpose of fear is to silence and dissuade us from speaking truth to power. Therefore, we must speak up and out for ourselves, for our communities and for our freedom.
This Black History Month, we honor the resilience of Black women like Dr. N. Louise Young and Dr. Thelma Patten Law — two of the first Black women providers at Planned Parenthood — and Faye Wattleton, the first Black woman President of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Wattleton convened the first-ever African American Women for Reproductive Freedom caucus in 1989, which included such notable advocates as Byllye Avery (National Black Women's Health Project); Donna Brazile (Housing Now); Shirley Chisholm (National Political Congress of Black Women); Jacqui Gates (National Association of Negro Business and Professional Women's Clubs Inc.); Marcia Ann Gillespie (Ms. Magazine); Dr. Dorothy Height (National Council of Negro Women); Jewel Jackson McCabe (National Coalition of 100 Black Women); Julianne Malveaux (San Francisco Black Leadership Forum); Eleanor Holmes Norton (Georgetown University Law School); C. Delores Tucker (DNC Black Caucus); Patricia Tyson (Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights); Maxine Waters (Black Women's Forum).
As we celebrate the millions of women and their allies who turned out for the Women’s March on January 21 — and as we prepare for our fight ahead against the defunding of Planned Parenthood and the rampant sexism, misogyny, xenophobia and racism of the current administration — we are called to protect and #TrustBlackWomen. That trust of Black women includes, but is not limited to, Black lesbian and queer women, Black trans women and gender nonconforming people, Black undocumented and immigrant women, and Black disabled women.
It is better to speak and act, remembering Assata Shakur’s wise reminder that we have nothing to lose but our chains.
- Black History Month 2016: Don’t Just Be About It….Read About It!
- Black History Month 2015: Telling the Continuing Stories of Our Bold Leaders