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Black Heritage Month Remains Essential

Column on Black Heritage Month by Millersville University’s Darlene Newman.

Written for LNP
Published Feb. 11, 2024

As we celebrate Black Heritage Month in 2024, there are groups of people who are trying to sugarcoat and erase African American history to promote patriotic education. Black Heritage Month — also known as Black History Month — is an opportunity for us not only to remember and reflect but also to educate our youth.

If we allow groups to ban or erase our history, this will twist the truths of America. I struggle with that. When you promote your values over truth, it diminishes the struggles of Black America and all of America. Those struggles are what this country was built upon. America needs to be held accountable for what happened in the past and understand how a generational gap was created on the sweat and toil of stolen labor to build a nation.

New technology magnifies the reality that racism still exists. Attempts to limit the teachings of African Americans show how insecure Americans are about exposing the truths of the present and past.

I think of Madam C.J. Walker, an African American who was born as Sarah Breedlove to her formerly enslaved parents. In 1908, she opened a factory and hair school in Pittsburgh. Through the vast growth and success of her beauty empire, she became America’s first recognized self-made female millionaire. She did all of that without a chemistry degree or formal education.

I think of Garrett Morgan, an African American inventor who only attended school through sixth grade. As Scientific American magazine wrote, Morgan saved “countless lives” by inventing the gas mask (which he called a “safety hood”) in the 1910s and the three-way traffic signal in 1923.

Just imagine what Walker and Morgan could have done with a formal education.

Black Heritage Month helps us to remember and reflect on the important events in our history and our impact on this country. It celebrates our heritage, our fight, our adversities. It’s essential that the truths are told about our history, regardless of the insecurities of others. If we don’t expose the truths of African American history, we’re doing a disservice to Latin history and to the history of the LGBTQ+ community, too. This is about our lived experiences, the role we had in building this country and the hopes and dreams that our ancestors had. Black Heritage Month is how we lift each other up.

It’s important that our youth understand how we got here through centuries of free labor. If you strip a group of people of their identity, their culture, their languages, it makes it easier to forget. It’s important to know where you came from.

The political dynamics unfolding around education in Florida shine a light on how groups of people are trying to stop our youth from learning about our history. That’s the reason it’s so important to celebrate Black Heritage Month. We can’t worry about other people’s insecurities. I can’t help that people feel badly about what their ancestors did. We need to know what happened so we can build a better future.

There are areas that African Americans know aren’t safe places to stop (like some areas of York County where racist incidents have occurred). It’s a shame we still have to think about these things.

State Sen. Art Haywood, a Philadelphia Democrat, recently released a report on the experiences of Black and Hispanic students in Pennsylvania state system universities. The report underlined just how pervasive racist hate speech and harassment continue to be in 2024.

I’ve talked to Black and Hispanic students who don’t feel safe on a college campus because of the color of their skin. If something goes missing, or the smell of marijuana is detected in the air, suspicion immediately falls on Black and Hispanic students. This impacts these students mentally. They’re fighting to get a college education and get ahead, and they have to fight even more just because of the color of their skin.

While movies and TV shows have done a better job of depicting successful African American families, the key is getting a good education. We need to invest in our schools at the elementary, secondary and postsecondary level. No one is pushing African American kids to go to a four-year college. We need to work with youth at the middle school level to help them see college and education as a possibility.

When I was growing up, the only people I saw outside my home who looked like me were cafeteria workers or the employee working the counter at the neighborhood store. We must offer our youth other aspirations: in medicine, the military, business, technology and so on. We need to give them the opportunity to dream and to achieve those dreams.

We can do that through education. Black Heritage Month should be about educating our youth about the past to help build the future. We need to show our Black and Hispanic youth that they are crucial pieces of the puzzle of America.

At Millersville University, I’m doing that by bringing middle school and high school students to campus for events that will expose them to possibilities for their future. One of our students, Jordan Branch, held a fair on campus to introduce Black and Hispanic kids to engineering. If we expose kids at a younger age to careers that they might see themselves in, it will help grow our community. When you expose them to all the areas that are possible, you give them the opportunity for a brighter future — a future that will help all of America.

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