Black History Month, which is observed in February, was established in the 1970s to celebrate the culture and accomplishments of African Americans. Although this designation may seem artificial or unnecessarily limiting (why only one month?), it is useful if it foregrounds the need to better weave Black narratives into the story of the American experience.
While reflecting on Black History Month this February, I remembered how the required reading of Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom by the late UCB professor Lawrence Levine in my undergraduate sociology class significantly opened my mind to how little I knew about the richness of African American cultural history.
On the other hand, it also triggered my recall of how two years ago, and many many years after my sociology class, I was dismayed that my son’s 5th grade American Revolution school play made no mention of the institution of slavery nor those left out of the Declaration of Independence. So, in my opinion, Black History Month is useful if it reminds people of past and present Black history and celebrates African American contributions.
Working alongside Prof. Bryan Wagner, former PhD Students Amani Morrison and Shadrick Small, and UC Berkeley librarians Susan Powell and Stacy Reardon, as well as other colleaguesfrom the D-Lab and Digital Humanities, I was able to dive deeper into African American history while taking part in the Louisiana Slave Conspiracies project. The Louisiana Slave Conspiracies is an interdisciplinary and collaborative research project dedicated to digitizing, transcribing, translating, publishing, and analyzing manuscripts related to two slave conspiracies organized at Pointe Coupée in the Spanish territory of Louisiana in 1791 and 1795. A key goal of our project is to make the documents from these two conspiracies freely available online so that the words of the enslaved participants can be heard. You can find these documents on the project website, online at lsc.berkeley.edu, and read a recent review of the project in the online journal Reviews in DH.
There are many ways that you can celebrate African American contributions during Black History month and beyond. You can read literature on the African American experience or by African Americans, visit websites like lsc.berkeley.edu, and attend events that honour Black history and culture. For example, the Library is hosting the event Celebrating Black History Month during the pandemic on February 26 and has compiled a list of novels and poetry by African American authors that you can check out. Data scientists may be especially interested in checking out the University of Richmond Digital Scholarship Lab’s fantastic data visualization website, the Forced Migration of Enslaved People in the United States 1810-1860. Regardless of the month, I encourage you to learn more about and advocate for Black lives all year round.