Black History Month - Why?

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Black History Month – Why?

Why is there no White history month? The very short answer from me is that every day is white history day. From textbooks to statues to laws and custom, white people have it better and easier than people of color in the USA, Canada, and the UK, all of whom have a Black History Month.

When I was growing up, blacks were portrayed in the cartoons I watched as subservient watermelon eating caricatures. Black people were portrayed as dangerous and subversive (Black Panthers, Black Power, etc.), with great fear from many white people, including my parents. Alternatively, blacks were seen as lazy and unstudious and deserving of their relative poverty.

The only somewhat positive examples of black people were athletes – Arthur Ashe, Muhammad Ali, and lots of football players. Black engineers, scientists, doctors, and other professionals were hidden from my sight. (Speaking of hidden, watch or read Hidden Figures this month – I had the privilege to minister to one of those pioneering women.)

The turning point in my understanding of black history and culture was through the church, my attendance at Wesley Seminary, and the practice of ministry. I continue to learn and grow, and hope you find this material interesting and worthy of your time and study.

The precursor to Black History Month was created in 1926 in the United States, when historian Carter G. Woodson and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History announced the second week of February to be "Negro History Week". This week was chosen because it coincided with the birthday of Abraham Lincoln on February 12 and that of Frederick Douglass on February 14; both dates had been celebrated together by black communities since the late 19th century.

Woodson contended that the teaching of black history was essential to ensure the physical and intellectual survival of the race within broader society: “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 American Indian left no continuous record. He did not appreciate the value of tradition; and where is he today? The Hebrew keenly appreciated the value of tradition, as is attested by the Bible itself. In spite of worldwide persecution, therefore, he is a great factor in our civilization.”

Throughout the 1930s, Negro History Week countered the growing myth of the South's "lost cause,” as epitomized in both the novel and the film Gone with the Wind. That myth argued that slaves had been well-treated, that the Civil War was a war of "northern aggression,” and that blacks had been better off under slavery. "When you control a man's thinking you do not have to worry about his actions,” Woodson wrote in his book The Miseducation of the American Negro, "you do not have to tell him not to stand here or go yonder. He will find his 'proper place' and will stay in it."

Black History Month – 2022 Theme

The theme for 2022 focuses on the importance of Black Health and Wellness. This theme acknowledges the legacy of not only Black scholars and medical practitioners in Western medicine, but also other ways of knowing (e.g., birth workers, doulas, midwives, naturopaths, herbalists, etc.) throughout the African Diaspora.

In order to foster good health and wellness Black people have embarked on self-determination, mutual aid, and social support initiatives to build hospitals, medical and nursing schools (Meharry Medical College, Howard University College of Medicine, Provident Hospital and Training School, Morehouse School of Medicine, etc.), and community clinics. Clinics were established by individuals, grassroots organizations, and mutual aid societies, such as the African Union Society, National Association of Colored Women and Black Panther Party, to provide spaces for Black people to counter the economic and health disparities and discrimination that are found at mainstream institutions.

Black History Month - Profile

Alexa Irene Canady, MD, was a pioneer of her time, both for women physicians and African Americans, when she became the first African American woman neurosurgeon in the United States in 1981. “The greatest challenge I faced in becoming a neurosurgeon was believing it was possible,” she is famously quoted.

Born in 1950, Canady grew up in Lansing, Michigan, where her father was a dentist and her mother an educator. She graduated from the University of Michigan in 1971 with a degree in zoology, and it was during her undergraduate studies that she attended a summer program in genetics for minority students and fell in love with medicine.

Canady went on to graduate cum laude from the College of Medicine at the University of Michigan. She initially wanted to be an internist but became intrigued by neurosurgery during her first two years of medical school. It was a career path that some advisers discouraged her from pursuing, and she encountered difficulties in obtaining an internship. But she persisted.  Eventually, Canady was accepted as a surgical intern at Yale-New Haven Hospital in 1975, breaking another barrier as the first woman and first African American to be enrolled in the program.

In 1976, Canady began her residency in neurosurgery at the University of Minnesota, which she competed in 1981. Following a fellowship in pediatric neurosurgery at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Canady returned to her home state of Michigan and joined the Neurosurgery Department at Detroit’s Henry Ford Hospital. Later, at age 36, she became the Chief of Neurosurgery at Children’s Hospital of Michigan, where she cared for young patients facing life-threatening illnesses, gunshot wounds, head trauma, hydrocephaly, brain tumors, and spine abnormalities.

After years as a successful neurosurgeon, Canady retired from her position in 2001 and relocated to Florida with her husband. Her retirement was short-lived, however, when she learned there were no pediatric neurosurgeons in her immediate area and began to practice part-time at Pensacola’s Sacred Heart Hospital. Canady officially retired from practicing medicine a second time in 2012. She continues to be an advocate for encouraging young women to pursue careers in medicine and neurosurgery.

Black History Month – Present Day

Fresh out of residency and in a new full-time job as a physician with Valley Oaks Medical Group, Dr. Malika Mitchell-Stewart visited a Houston area Chase bank branch to open an account and deposit her first check. When she presented the $16,780.16 to the teller, the teller began to ask "peculiar questions" about its authenticity and Mitchell-Stewart's employment. When the first teller asked another branch employee for an opinion on the check (which represented a signing bonus), the second employee declared it to be fraudulent without offering any justification.

Personal ID, emails, and business cards were not enough to change the employees' minds, the suit says. "They took my special moment away. I felt like a criminal," Mitchell-Stewart told KTRK, "In order to get Texas medical license or a medical license at all, you have to have a clean record. You have to go to school for so many years, and they just didn't care. They didn't respect that. They didn't respect my credentials." (February 2022)

This type of implicit bias happens over and over again – Dr. Tamika Cross turned away from helping an unconscious man on plane.  Emergency care is delayed because flight attendant doesn’t believe black woman is a doctor. (October 9, 2016)

Dr. Ashely Denmark turned away from helping a man on a flight since two white nurses were assisting. “As an African American female physician, I am too familiar with this scenario. Despite excelling academically and obtaining the title of ‘doctor’ in front of my name, I still get side-eye glances when I introduce myself as Dr. Denmark. Commonly, I’m mistaken for an assistant, janitor, secretary, nurse, student, etc., even when I have my white coat on.”

God bless you all,

Rev. Curtis Ehrgott