Is it Black History Month or African American History Month?

The question is pertinent, for it provides a look into the persistent ambivalence of Black identity in America. While it is acknowledged that Black History Month as it is recognized in the United States is celebrated in February, it is unclear whether this means that this month’s intent is to recognize only the contributions of Black people in America, or the contributions of Black people worldwide. Write-ups and activities in celebration of this month generally spotlight African Americans. A further clarification is needed as to what constitutes “African American” identity. Does this term refer only to the American Descendants of Slaves (ADOS), who constitute a distinct ethnicity (i.e., those who invented jazz music and created Ebonics)? Prior to Yvette Carnell’s recent invention of the ethnic designator ADOS, “African American,” when it was first adopted en masse at the behest of Jesse Jackson in 1988, referred exclusively to this group. The ADOS term has helped to further clarify this identity imprecision and reinforce the nuance of Black identity in America, but the month celebrated in February has failed to do the same.

When the month is celebrated annually, students in America become acquainted with a curriculum that parrots the traditional narratives of the experience of ADOS Blacks in the antebellum South and the veneration of ADOS figures like Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King Jr, and Rosa Parks. This comes at the expense of a more panoramic view and appreciation of Black history. Does not Marcus Mosiah Garvey, a Jamaican who leveraged his seismic impact from his base in Harlem, New York and bequeathed unto the Black race worldwide the very red, black, and green flag that is often used in Black History Month celebrations not fall under the umbrella of those who should be commemorated in Black History Month?

If Black History Month is only to recognize the contributions of Black people in America, then we run into a semantic problem. Surely the racial term “Black” cannot refer solely to ADOS, for it was the Trinidadian Stokely Carmichael who popularized the proud term “Black Power,” and it was Kwame Nkrumah, the first president of Ghana, who upon his declaration of Ghana’s independence, stated that “Now is the time to show the world that the Black man is capable of managing his own affairs.” Alas, men like Nkrumah are seldom, if ever, discussed in Black History Month celebrations. Barack Obama, as the son of a Kenyan, is not an ADOS yet he is celebrated in Black History Month, presumably for his contribution to the historical narrative of Blacks in America. But then does not Nelson Mandela, with whom blacks worldwide identify with, not merit commemoration in America’s Black History Month? His work was not in America, but it certainly merits recognition as part of Black people’s contributions to history and civilization.

As the son of an ADOS father and a Jamaican mother and being native to South Florida; I am intimately familiar with the multifarious nature of Black identity and I consistently probe the notions of identity and culture in an effort to ensure the representation and appreciation of all facets of blackness. If Black History Month is to live up to its appellation, it must cause curricula and celebrations to be contoured in ways inclusive of the experience of Black people beyond America’s borders. If not, then it must be recognized simply as African American History Month or ADOS History Month and not be conflated with Black History Month.

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