Behind the headlines: Why Black History Month matters

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is recognizing Black History Month with daily features, plus a weekly series examining African American life in Atlanta.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is recognizing Black History Month with daily features, plus a weekly series examining African American life in Atlanta.

On the first Sunday in February, in recognition of Black History Month, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution launched a thoughtful series examining African American life.

On page 1, staffers Ernie Suggs and Najja Parker took us into the world of Atlanta’s black arts community and analyzed its global relevance.

That same day, in our Living & Arts section, we published a feature story about the history of the Gullah Geechee hymn “Kumbaya,” recognized in 2017 as Georgia’s first state historical song.

As a senior leader who participated in the AJC’s Black History Month planning, and more importantly as a person of color in the Atlanta community for 15 years, I was proud to see my paper begin a series that would enlighten readers, both those born and raised here and those recently transplanted here.

I believe that only the AJC can provide the kind of local context and historical perspective that an examination of African American life needs, and frankly deserves. Suggs, an award-winning journalist and the lead reporter and organizer of the series, has been covering Atlanta since 1997.

I really couldn’t be prouder of the AJC team doing this work. So, I was stumped by a question that came up a few days ago in the newsroom: “Did we do the right thing in the way we decided to cover Black History Month?”

The question hung in the air for a moment as thoughts of how to respond flooded my mind. At first, to be quite honest, I was confused. I am not known for my poker face, so I imagine my wrinkled brow clearly reflected that confusion. But then it hit me. There it was, a blind spot. We all have them. In an instant, I realized I hadn’t considered all of the points of view, different points of view. Not wrong. Not right. Different.

I didn’t consider that some might criticize the AJC for too much emphasis on Black History Month. And others might criticize us by saying we wait until February, the shortest month of the year, to write about African American life, which, by the way, we don’t.

I’d neglected to think about how so many people — of all races, including black Americans — believe that it’s time for society to move beyond Black History Month and any other specially designated time to highlight one particular culture.

We heard from readers on social media who questioned or ridiculed our coverage. One reader wrote that Black History Month is “a joke.” Another said, “It’s the most racist, unnecessary form of light shed on the black communities in this country.” Some think Black History Month is divisive.

I hear you.

But readers also contacted us to thank us for the history lesson we gave in a Black History Month video on our website. And a former Atlanta mayor wrote to reporter Suggs, “Thanks for the article about Atlanta’s art scene and especially its complexity.”

I hear you, too.

Please allow me to share why I think it’s so important that we do these stories and why this month matters as much as, if not more than, any other month.

First, let’s be clear: This is not an apology, and this isn’t an attempt to change anyone’s mind. Those who have a problem with our coverage are entitled to their opinions.

But the AJC has an obligation, and it’s part of our mission, to cover and reflect the diversity of the region. Atlanta is an epicenter of black life, with the region’s fast-growing African American population, and there are rich stories to tell about black history in particular.

You aren’t here for a history lesson, but it’s important to remind you how Black History Month came to be in the first place.

The celebration dates back to 1926 when historian Carter G. Woodson and other prominent African Americans started “Negro History Week.”

Woodson said: “If a race has no history, it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated.”

Woodson believed that the celebration and documentation of history was integral to the survival and sustainability of any race.

The first official observance of Black History Month wasn’t until 1970 on the campus of Kent State University in Ohio. And it wasn’t until 1976 that it was officially recognized by the U.S. government and then-President Gerald Ford.

So, you might say it’s not the 1920s. It’s not even the 1970s, and it’s time to change our thinking and approach.

Last year, The Philadelphia Inquirer published a moving opinion column, titled “Cancel Black History Month,” by journalist Ernest Owens.

In the column, Owens said that the only reason we have Black History Month is because “America has a problem celebrating black lives in a positive way. …By segregating the celebration of black history into a separate month, we are basically permitting such a void in the way America validates black people’s experiences. … Black history is history. Period. To treat it as anything separate is reductive and racist.”

I agree with some of Owens’ points. But canceling Black History Month is not the solution. For the AJC and newspapers across the country to intentionally shy away from coverage during the month is not the solution.

Sadly, for some people, this may be the only month they see or hear about black history. It may be the only time they are open to learning more about the black experience.

Last week, my daughter brought home a school bulletin that said her social studies class this month would study famous people, including Harriet Tubman, Fredrick Douglass, Rosa Parks, Ruby Bridges, Wilma Rudolph, Henry “Box” Brown, George Washington Carver and Jesse Owens. The bulletin didn’t mention Black History Month, but guess what all those people have in common? Do you know who all these people are?

A good parent would argue that lessons on these historical figures should take place all year long, not just “this month.” But what if this is the only month it happens?

It’s our job as journalists to educate and inform, not to be passive observers of the world. It’s my hope that the AJC’s coverage of Black History Month will enrich someone. We put thought into the Sunday and daily pieces and chose topics that matter. We didn’t want to just write about black people and black things and black places because it’s February. To do that alone would be shallow, disrespectful and ignorant to some degree.

Our goal is to teach a bit about black history, to tell you more about your state, your city, your community, your neighbors, the people who are changing the world and how the world is changing because of them.

Be open to thinking of it as one way to eradicate racial stereotypes, rather than a way to divide. I can hear your difference of opinion, but I want to reiterate the intent of the AJC’s coverage — you will learn something from it. I promise.

Monica Richardson is the senior managing editor at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.