Black History Month – History, Antiracism, and You

By Jenna Massey '24

This February marks the annual celebration of Black History Month, officially recognized by President Gerald Ford as a period to “honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.” 

The origins of Black History Month date back to 1915, when Black author and historian Carter G. Woodson formed the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, grounding the organization in “that beautiful history [that will] inspire us to greater achievements.”  Throughout his career, Woodson maintained that educating the American public on the subject of Black history was crucial to the social well-being of the country, believing “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.” 

The first day of Negro History Week was on February 7, 1926

In 1926, Woodson founded February’s “Negro History Week,” aligning the dates with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln (Feb 12) and Frederick Douglass (Feb 14.)  In the decades since, Woodson’s history week has transformed into a 28-day celebration of culture, tradition, and achievement.

It’s impossible to know what sense Carter G. Woodson, widely regarded as the “Father of Black History,” had of the arduous future that African Americans would face in this country.  Woodson died in 1950, four years before the start of the Civil Rights Movement that brought issues of minority education, employment, voting, and housing to the federal jurisdiction.  For over a decade, Black Americans took to the streets to fight for equality – for the basic rights guaranteed to their white neighbors but so often denied to them on the basis of race.  And though the efforts of the 50s and 60s were largely successful in bringing major changes to the lives of American minorities, their struggle for justice is far from over.  

The civil rights movement of the 21st century has shifted our focus from “equality” to “equity.”  Acknowledging that racism in this country is institutionalized, and leads to discriminatory practices in educational, housing, health, criminal justice, and employment systems, allows us to distribute resources and assistance based on actual, rather than perceived, need.  The systemic nature of inequity also means that when discussing civil rights today, it is not enough to simply establish one’s stance with the statement: “I’m not racist.”  In order to truly understand the struggles experienced by minority groups in the U.S., fight institutionalized racism, and undo racial prejudices in your personal life, you must practice antiracism.  You likely heard this term enter the public vernacular in the wake of last summer’s Black Lives Matter marches, but you might not be familiar with how to adopt it. 

Black Live sMatter was founded in 2013 in response to the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s murderer.

Antiracism is developed through education and action.  Education starts with learning about the history of racism in this country from the perspectives of people of color.  Expose yourself to literature, art, film, and music created by Black voices, and search for narratives that challenge your understanding of race and culture.  Look to modern civil rights leaders like Stacey Abrams, Van Jones, and Kimberlé Crenshaw in order to understand 21st century struggles.   And don’t be afraid to admit your own prejudices.  Antiracist action can be executed in a multitude of ways, like donating to or volunteering for civil rights organizations, supporting Black-owned businesses, and diversifying the content that you create and consume.

This Black History Month, W&M Libraries want to help readers with the “education” part of their effort to practice antiracism.  Below, you’ll find a curated list of resources regarding Civil Rights activists, institutionalized racism, and antiracism.  We hope you take some time this month to learn something new about Black culture, and about the profound impacts that African Americans have made on this country.

Library resources:

Stamped:  A remix of Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning, Jason Reynolds’ Stamped is William and Mary’s One Book, One Community selection for 2021.  According to its jacket, Stamped “shines a light on the many insidious forms of racist ideas – and on ways YOU can identify and stamp out racist thoughts, leading to a better future.”  Jason Reynolds will be featured in a virtual author visit and book talk on February 22 at 7 p.m.  Stamped is available for checkout at Swem.

John Lewis: Good Trouble: This documentary tells the story of legendary U.S. Representative John Lewis’ life, legacy, and more than 60 years of extraordinary activism.  Available through Alexander Street.

This Little Light of Mine: The Legacy of Fannie Lou Hamer: “This Little Light” explores the life of a sharecropper turned activist in 1960s Mississippi.  Available through Alexander Street.

Between The World and Me: Regarded by Toni Morrison as “required reading,” Ta-Nehisi’s Between the World and Me is a nonfiction book that, according to its jacket, “pivots from the biggest questions about American History and ideals to the most intimate concerns of a father for his son…[offering] a powerful new framework for understanding out nation’s history and current crisis.”  Between The World and Me is available digitally and for checkout at Swem.

1619: This 6-episode podcast, created by the New York Times, “examines the long shadow of American slavery,” beginning with the arrival of enslaved Africans in North America.  Available for free on your favorite podcasting platform.

The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross?: This six-part PBS series gives insight into the global experiences that created the African American people, beginning in 1500 and ending in 2013.  Available through Alexander Street.

I Am Not Your Negro: James Baldwin and Race in America: An Oscar-nominated documentary narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO explores the continued peril America faces from institutionalized racism.  Available through Kanopy.

How to be an Antiracist: Author Ibram X. Kendi “weaves an electrifying combination of ethics, history, law, and science” to inspire readers to consider how they can help build an antiracist society.  How to be an Antiracist is available digitally and for checkout at Swem.

Soundtrack for a Revolution: This documentary explores the music of the American Civil Rights Movement, utilizing a mixture of archival footage, interviews with civil rights activists, and new performances of freedom songs by modern artists.  Available for free on TubiTV.

Intersectionality Matters!: Produced by the African American Policy Forum and hosted by renowned race theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw, Intersectionality Matters is a podcast that examines the varieties and importance of intersectionality in the 21st century.  Available for free on your favorite podcasting platform.

Black History Month events: 

W&M Libraries will host a number of virtual events in February for Black History Month around the topic of racism and antiracism, including "How To Talk to Your Kids About Race" with Dr. Natoya Haskins on Feb. 4, "A Thousand Words: The Fight Against Racist Imagery" with Steve Prince on Feb. 17, and a book talk with Jason Reynolds, author of Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You on Feb. 22. All events are free and open to the public. 

The Libraries will also host two book discussions on Stamped: