This year's Black History Month reflects on the present as much as the past

Recent protests and race-relations discussions make for an impactful Black History Month.

From Black Lives Matter to the Baltimore Uprising and beyond, 2015 was a tumultuous year in the annals of black America -- a fact that hasn't been lost on educators and museum officials planning commemorations for Black History Month.

Events of the past year offer the chance to expand those commemorations beyond the usual emphasis on such giant figures as Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King Jr., they say, and to remind everyone that last year or month is as much a part of history as last century.

"If you think about it, history is occurring daily, right? So yesterday is history," says Kimberly R. Moffitt, associate professor of American studies and affiliate assistant professor in the departments of Africana studies and the language, literacy and culture doctoral program at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. "So even though the Black Lives Matter campaign in particular is seen as recent and current history, it is something that has so much of its foundation in historical movements and events."

Adds Joanne Martin, president of the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum, "For us, it's always got to be about trying to find a way to make those important connections between the past and the present. Our mission is to look at what's going on today and make those connections."

With multiple race-relations protests and last April's riots in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray — and even including the recent #OscarsSoWhite controversy over the lack of diversity in this year's Oscar nominations, black inclusion has been a prevalent theme of the past year. But nearly all of what has happened has roots in the decades and centuries that have come before.

"How can you really educate if you just talk about the past, but you're not showing the connections with the present, in terms of institutional forms and barriers that still exist," says A. Skipp Sanders, outgoing director of the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture. "We really needed to enhance how we were connecting history with current events, which is really current history."

Throughout the Baltimore area, schools and institutions have scheduled events for February that go beyond focusing on slavery and the civil rights struggle of the 1960s. The Lewis Museum kicks off its month-long commemoration Saturday with a community forum led by Devin Allen, whose photograph of the unrest following the death of Freddie Gray made the cover of Time magazine. At UMBC, planned events include a panel discussion, "Black Lives Matter: More Than a Hashtag! It's a Movement." And the Great Blacks in Wax Museum has scheduled a workshop for Feb. 24 on "From Slave Revolts to Black Lives Matter."

Already, reverberations from the Black Lives Matter movement and the uprising are heavily influencing how schools, museums and other cultural institutions are connecting with the black community. Earlier this month, the Lewis Museum staged a Men of Courage conference in honor of Martin Luther King's birthday, in which some 70 African-American men sat and talked with one another about the issues they faced, Sanders said. UMBC's Moffitt said she was part of Kwanzaa celebrations in December "where the conversation about Black Lives Matter and the Baltimore Uprising was a part of that discussion."

Events at the Great Blacks in Wax Museum, Martin notes, are focused on drawing in young people — a group museums nationwide are often at pains to attract. History, she notes, has often been shaped by forces unleashed by the young.

"The activism that emerged during the 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement and the black consciousness movement, and the way that activism plays itself out today — that's at the heart of what we plan to do in February, to show how the civil rights movement was a youth movement," says Martin. "That's important."

Black History Month 2016 offers the chance to remind young people, especially, that history is a vital part of their lives, says Natasha C. Pratt-Harris, associate professor & criminal justice program coordinator in Morgan State University’s department of sociology and anthropology.

After all, what they are doing today is not that much different than what was being done in the 1860s or the 1960s, Pratt-Harris says.

"When young people see that Dr. King was arrested, that Harriet Tubman defied the laws of the times," they can relate that to what is happening today, she says. "They can say, 'That's a Dr. King thing,' or 'That's a Harriet Tubman thing.'"

Plus, Pratt-Harris notes, holding community forums and town hall meetings offers people a moment to see that what they're doing today matters.

"The students are looking at Black History Month and they're saying, all this that we've done has not been in vain. It actually has some weight, in terms of what's happening at the state legislature, what's happening at city council meetings. It's not just for show — there's actually meaning behind the movement," she says.

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