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Black History is American History

Perrin Kennedy, a student in Columbia’s Nonprofit Management program and Columbia HBCU Fellow, reflects on how he’s celebrating Black History Month, and why we need more than a single month to celebrate Black leaders and innovators.

What are you reading, watching or listening to for Black History Month?

I am revisiting one of my favorite pieces of literature this month. W.E.B. Du Bois' The Souls of Black Folks is a brilliant piece of work that gives social commentary on the struggle of African Americans after the Civil War. Du Bois discusses many injustices and problems that still exist today, including the disenfranchisement of African Americans in education, employment, and social status. One topic of the book that I find fascinating is Du Bois' idea of "The Veil." As described in the book, "The Veil'' is "a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity" (Du Bois, 1903). Du Bois uses "The Veil" as a metaphor to describe the process by which African Americans must see themselves through a white-dominated society. The idea of African Americans having to conform to white norms is something that still exists today with practices like hair discrimination laws. We must continue to dismantle this system and make sure that people from all races and backgrounds feel comfortable being their natural selves.                       

Charles S. Johnson was a brilliant educator and sociologist, Garrett Morgan was the inventor of the traffic light, and Marie Van Brittan Brown invented the home security system. These individuals, along with countless others, contributed to Black history, as well as American history."

Is there someone in your industry/discipline, past or present, who you look up to? Who is it, and why?   

Someone I have come to appreciate since my time as an undergraduate at Fisk University is Shirley Chisholm. She was the first African American congresswoman and the first woman and African American to seek the presidential nomination from a major political party. Congresswoman Chisholm came from humble beginnings as the child of two immigrant parents. After graduating from college and receiving a master’s degree from Columbia's Teachers College, she was heavily active in community groups, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), League of Women Voters, and the National Urban League. During her time in Congress serving New York's 12th district from 1969 to 1983, she accrued many significant achievements, including being the second woman to serve on The House Rules Committee (1977) and co-founding the National Women's Political Caucus (1971). She was a strong vocal advocate against the Vietnam War and supported education reform. Her willingness to stand up for what she believed in and her dedication to public service is something that inspires me every day. This commitment to public service also inspired me to study political science in my undergraduate studies, and nonprofit management as a graduate student here at Columbia. Like Congresswoman Chisholm, I aspire to be an active public servant who serves my community.           

What's a common misconception about Black History Month that you'd like to clarify?

The American calendar recognizes Black History Month as just one month out of the year. Black History Month should exist year-round because Black history is American history. School history lessons always teach children about the Founding Fathers. While these figures are important, it is critical that we also remember Black change-makers that transformed the United States of America. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks are often the focal points. While we know that they are excellent in their own right, there is a plethora of other Black scholars, leaders, and innovators. Charles S. Johnson was a brilliant educator and sociologist, Garrett Morgan was the inventor of the traffic light, and Marie Van Brittan Brown invented the home security system.

These individuals, along with countless others, contributed to Black history, as well as American history. These individuals help to account for the diversity of the American story. They should be recognized for their accomplishments throughout the year.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of any other person or entity. 

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