February 1 marked the beginning of Black History Month.
Each year, we set aside a few weeks to focus historical hindsight on the contributions Black Americans have made to this country—a time where we celebrate, uplift and educate.
February is the month where I, as a Black woman, shout even louder than normal:
"I'M BLACK AND I'M PROUD!"
While not everyone agrees Black History Month is a good thing, there are several reasons why I think it's appropriate to celebrate this occasion. There are so many amazing Black people—and especially Black women—to shine a light on. There have been countless strong Black figures who have paved paths that I now strut on with confidence. I have an unmeasurable amount of gratitude to all those who went before me and fought the good fight.
But I'm getting ahead of myself.
First, let's briefly recount the advent of Black History Month, also called African-American History Month. Originally, it began as Negro History Week in 1926. It took place during the second week of February because it coincided with the birthdates of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. A historian by the name of Carter G. Woodson is credited with the creation of Negro History Week.
In 1976, President Gerald R. Ford expanded the week into a full month, stating the U.S. needed to "seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history."
I'm in my mid-20s and every day I learn so much about Black history in our country. Of course, I took all the relevant history classes in elementary and high school, but much of Black history has been left out or whitewashed in our history books. I'm so grateful for movies like Hidden Figures, Loving, Selma and so many others that help to bring to life the rich, diverse and challenging history of the Black experience in the United States.
I'm grateful for museums like the National Civil Rights Museum, DuSable Museum and—right here in West Michigan—the Grand Rapids African American Museum and Archives, which captures both the struggle and the celebration that Black people have faced through the years.
I'm grateful for the books, articles, mentors, and professors that have transported me to a different time and space, where history is breathed in like the air around me.
Black history is American history. And when the stories go untold, I feel so deeply—just as President Ford—that we miss out on a critical part of our collective history.
When I took on this assignment, I wasn't sure what direction I wanted to take. I wasn't sure the best way to not only share what I know about Black History Month, but how I wanted to connect the community as well. And then it struck me: I wanted to hear what prominent Black women in West Michigan had to say. While there are so many women I could have called up, I allowed myself two: Angela Cunningham and Veverly Austin. Two women who have made huge strides in West Michigan, accomplished so much and continue to advocate for the Black community in nearly every step they take.
Angela Cunningham is a longtime reporter and fill-in anchor with 13 On Your Side and has been one of few Black women to appear on-air in West Michigan. In recent years, she has taken the huge step in reporting while wearing her natural hair—a common battle fought by many Black women in the professional workforce. When I reached out to Angela, I hoped she could share some insight from her own perspective the importance of Black History Month, given the community she lives and reports in, and she did just that.
Many of us, especially in the Black Community, get reflective this time of year. Black History Month, very often, provokes contemplation, celebration and—quite frankly—awe.
This is certainly true for me.
I am an African-American woman working in broadcast television! It is not lost on me that a mere 55 years ago, it would have been legal to deny me any job based simply the color of my skin. Yet today, thousands of people welcome me into their homes, via television, and trust me to give them information that will shape their decisions and impact their lives. I am eternally grateful for the pioneers that paved the way for me to be able to utter those words.
I could list Ida B. Wells, Carole Simpson, Gwen Ifill and, of course, Oprah Winfrey, as names of women worthy of praise and recognition. And I would be right to do so. However, while we take time this month to celebrate their accomplishments—and those of others like them—we must remember history is more than a collection of dates, names, facts and archival data.
History, especially Black History, is a repository of pride and purpose. It is a blueprint for triumph. It is an axis between the past and present that, when used properly, can keep us from drifting aimlessly, like a rudderless ship.
I often hear people complain about Black History being relegated to one month of the year. I challenge those people to stop observing Black History Month as a holiday that comes around once a year. Instead, embrace it ... Use it ... And embody the spirit of it.
Legacy lives not in the actions of the past, but in the things, we do and teach every single day. And how awesome is that!
Veverly Austin is a well-known name and face of West Michigan, not just among the Black community. She is a mentor, motivational speaker, entrepreneur and innovator—having worked for years to grow her personal brand in Grand Rapids. She is a woman of faith and persistence, taking command of any room she enters. She has changed the landscape of healthcare among the Black community by being a prominent liaison for increased free health education, screening, and classes, as well as building confidence among teens and women through mentorship and supporting breast cancer awareness and through Rock'n the Runway. She has bridged many gaps in West Michigan and had much to say on Black History Month.
Some believe that Black History Month is no longer needed—I disagree. It is because of the great Dr. Carter G Woodson and his diligence that we saw a small transformation in the representation of Black culture in literature. Before Woodson's creation of Negro History Week, history books largely ignored the Black American population and when Black people were figured into the picture, it was generally in ways that reflected the inferior social position they were assigned for many years.
For years, we have allowed our history and heritage to be written, communicated and portrayed to us in the most negative and untruthful ways by non-Blacks. Dr. Carter G Woodson spent the majority of his life exposing us to the true richness of who we are as Black people and our incredible life-altering contributions to this American society. I feel everyone should learn about Black History—if you don't, we can't move on as a society. Black History Month is a clarion call to remember. Yet, unfortunately, it is a call that is often unheeded.
Black History Month is a time of reflection, rejoicing and recommitting to reach the next generation.
The chains of slavery are gone—but we are all not yet free mentally. Our rich history did not begin with slavery; our priceless history started long before we were stolen as a people and forced to European lands and enslaved.
Although I do believe we should acknowledge our rich history all year long, we should be intentional during Black History Month to celebrate, educate and access what's left to learn. When I think of Black History Month, I think of my people coming together, strengthening each other, strategizing and rejoicing! Our Black history is the adhesive of the American history and is a reminder of not just how far we have traveled, but how far there is to go.
Black History Month gives us time to retreat, reflect, regroup, and return to society stronger, better, wiser, and with even greater pride. My Black is wealthy! My Black is strong, my Black is resilient, my Black is supportive, my Black is not judgmental, my Black is wise! My Black is faithful, my Black is whole, my Black is healthy, my Black is a bright shining light that illuminates through every lens. My Black is so confident! I am Black history!
BLACK HISTORY MONTH EVENTS IN WEST MICHIGAN
There are so many interesting activities, events, and speakers that help to celebrate and education throughout the month of February. You can find all kinds of things to do and see on ExperienceGR, Downtown Grand Rapids and GR Kids, as well as any nearby college or university. I've put together this list of some of my favorites that incorporate music, food, dancing and learning:
• Grand Valley State University is hosting Black Film Fridays every Friday in February, from 12 p.m. until 2 p.m., with a discussion to follow.
• The Grand Rapids African American Museum and Archives, 87 Monroe Center St. NW, is hosting a Minstrel Show to dive into the history of Blackface. This runs until Feb. 28.
• A special Black History Walking Tour through downtown Grand Rapids happens Saturday, February 16. It starts at Rosa Parks Circle, 135 Monroe Center St. NW.
• Interested in hearing amazing soul music? Check out Symphony with Soul featuring Black Violin, Saturday, February 16, from 8 p.m. until 10 p.m. at DeVos Performance Hall, 303 Monroe Ave. NW.
• Hungry? The Grand Rapids Public Library hosts a Taste of Soul experience on Sunday, February 17, from 1 p.m. until 4:30 p.m. at the main library, 111 Library St. NE.
• If you're Black and curious to learn more about your family's history in America, check out the Grand Rapids Public Library's Black Family History Series Workshop happening Saturday, February 23, from 10 a.m. until 3 p.m., at the main library, 111 Library St. NE.
• See the stories of legends through dance, drama and music at the Live African American Museum at Woodland Mall, Saturday, February 23, from 2 p.m. until 6 p.m.
April Simone Stevens is a Grand Valley State University alumna and beauty blogger who enjoys dabbling in graphic design and video production. Residing outside of Grand Rapids, April Simone enjoys beer tasting, delicious food and visiting Grand Rapids Art Museum as often as possible.
April Simone's photo courtesy of Kaylee Buecher.
Veverly Austin's photo courtesy of Aleka C Thrash.