Understanding Black Heritage

(Illustration: Atlas Studio / Getty Images)

Celebrating Black heritage is not simply a month-long thing – Black history, culture, success and joy is something to be celebrated all year round. But February gives us an opportunity to shine an even brighter light on the achievements and contributions of Black people and to remember the influential figures that made their mark and those who are breaking new ground today. 

With so much to commemorate, some people have questioned why February — the shortest month of the year — is when we, as a country, officially celebrate Black history and heritage. The decision dates back almost a century ago, in 1926, when Carter G. Woodson, known as the “father of Black History,” launched Negro History Week through his organization, today called the Association for the Study of African American Life and History. It was celebrated during the second week of February because the birthdays of two influential figures in the emancipation of enslaved people — Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln — fell within that week. In 1976, the weeklong celebration turned into a month. That same year, President Gerald R. Ford issued a message honoring Black History Month, and to this day, presidents continue to issue proclamations to celebrate Black history and heritage every February.

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Of course, Black culture, history and heritage is worthy of celebration every month and every day. It’s part of the very fabric of our nation. In the U.S., about 47 million people identify as Black or African American, according to the 2020 census, making up the third largest racial group in the country. 

But the term “Black” is not a catch-all identifier. Many people use Black and African American interchangeably, but the words do not always mean the same thing to every person. African American typically refers to descendants of enslaved people in the U.S., but many prefer to identify as just Black. Some people choose to identify with both terms, but everyone who identifies as Black is not necessarily African American. For example, some people identify as Haitian American or Nigerian American depending on where their families are originally from. Immigrants may also identify as Black but aren’t descendants of enslaved people in this country. Others may identify as biracial or mixed race. There’s no one answer, and assuming someone’s identity is never the way to go. It’s always best to ask.

When we think about Black heritage, we typically highlight the well-known icons, trailblazers, and Civil Rights activists — names like Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Booker T. Washington, Harriet Tubman, John Lewis, Maya Angelou and former President Barack Obama. But there are so many hidden figures who’ve made their mark on this country’s history, too – people like Claudette Colvin, who refused to give up her seat before Rosa Parks did, or Charles Richard Drew, who pioneered blood banks in this country. There’s also Fritz Pollard, the first Black coach in the NFL, and Dr. Shirley Jackson, whose discoveries led to the production of the fax machine, caller ID and so many more critical technological advancements.

Just this year, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries became the first Black lawmaker to head a major political party in Congress. In 2022 alone, several Black Americans achieved and contributed so many firsts to the government, military and education systems. Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson became the first Black woman Supreme Court Justice; Claudine Gay became the first Black president of Harvard; Gen. Michael E. Langley became the Marine Corps’ first Black four-star general; and Karine Jean-Pierre became the first Black White House press secretary.

It’s been over 400 years since chattel slavery in the U.S. began, and it’s been a long road for Black Americans to get where they are today. The hardships of slavery, racial segregation and racial injustices have tried to define Black people for centuries and have left deep-seated issues — deaths at the hands of police, setbacks in voting rights, the effects of redlining in the housing market, pushback against teaching African American history — that Black communities wrestle with today.  

But despite suffering and adversity, there has been resilience and perseverance — grassroots, revolutionary movements that have fought against these injustices and provided hope for a better future: the Underground Railroad, the Great Migration, the Harlem Renaissance, the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Power movement and, most recently, Black Lives Matter and Black Voters Matter movements.

This month and all year round, it’s essential that we spotlight the contributions of Black Americans and challenge ourselves to take a hard look at this country’s past and its present. Black history is Black heritage and Black heritage is American heritage.