It feels odd writing a Black History Month themed article on the penultimate day of the month. It's not unlike sending a Christmas card on the day of or wishing someone a happy birthday a week late. There has always been the over-riding urgency to celebrate special moments and special people only on certain days or during a designated time of year. Whether it's birthdays or holidays or Black History Month, the same question remains: Aren't these special people and moments worth more than recognition on Hallmark's calendar? After all, the black men who have helped shape our entire LGBT community didn't do so in one month.
Bayard Rustin, for instance, is perhaps the most influential gay person of color in history. Alternately, he's also one of the least recognized. Even though he's no longer with us, the impact of his work still lives. Rustin was the chief organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, famed for the location where the late Dr. Martin Luther King gave his "I Have a Dream" speech. Rustin wasn't merely a political ally; he was a friend and colleague of Dr. King. As an openly gay man at the center of the civil rights movement, it calls into question the foundation of equal rights in America and how access to it is deserving of everyone.
Similarly, from another cultural perspective, jazz composer Billy Strayhorn has been instrumental in solidifying the influence of black culture in music and entertainment. Unless you're a fan of jazz or have parents and grandparents that have are into the genre, you may not be know that Strayhorn, an openly gay man, wrote the classic standards performed by Duke Ellington: "Take the A Train," "Something to Live For" and the ultimate lounge ballad, "Lush Life". What is well known is the influence of jazz on the early genres that we love today, like hip-hop, pop, RnB and the multiple fusions.
While these may seem like old sounds, the influences of Bayard Rustin, Billy Strayhorn and countless others is what has allowed us to experience this moment when same-sex marriage has more support than ever and countries like America are looking beyond bipartisanship to a brighter, equal future. And although Black History Month is officially celebrated for less than 30 days, it's an opportunity to recognize the contributions of black peoples all over the globe.
For instance, Black History Month was launched in the UK in 1987. It's celebrated in October to coincide with Marcus Garvey celebrations and the London Jubilee. The London School of Economics warns, however, that although Black History Month is an opportunity to reflect on past and present experiences, "one month’s celebration cannot make up for forgetting Black history the rest of the year".
Shifting opinions on the length of Black History Month are prompting new commentary on the direction of the celebration of black peoples. Some say singling out one group of people for celebrating, for however long, infers a sense of entitlement and in some instances reverse racism. Columnist Michael Coard of the Philly Post disagrees. In the article "Why It’s Time to Abolish Black History Month", Coard reminds us that it was Carter G. Woodson, the "Father of Black History" and the first person on enslaved parents to graduate from an Ivy League university, that announced Negro History Week in 1925 and first celebrated it in February 1926. One of Woodson's professors had previously told him that "the negro had no history". Negro History Week was started to counter what Woodson knew as a false, yet popularly believed, claim. The week would grow to become Black History Month. Why February? Woodson chose it because it was the month Abe Lincoln and Frederick Douglass died.
Michael Coard offers an extensive history of the development of Black History Month. What's particularly interesting is his explanation why we should celebrate black achievement year around. Coard quotes a statement by Woodson's Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH). Black History Month was "never viewed black history as a one-week affair. He pressed for schools to use Negro History Week to demonstrate what students learned all year. It was in this sense that blacks would learn of their past on a daily basis that he looked forward to the time when an annual celebration would no longer be necessary."
Similarly, Coard argues that black history is "much too important to be 'crammed into a limited time frame'". Equally, so are the contributions of LGBT people of color. Whether we speak of the legacy of Bayard Rustin, Billy Strayhorn or the Black LGBT of our time, their lives should be celebrated all year.