Why Black History Matters Today: A Historian’s Perspective
“Those who have no record of what their forebears have accomplished lose the inspiration which comes from the teaching of biography and history,” wrote Carter G. Woodson, who’s known as the Father of Black History. In 1926, Woodson created Negro History Week, a predecessor of Black History Month.
With its Africana Studies minor and several other courses and programs that focus on teaching and preserving Black history, UCF’s College of Arts and Humanities is helping students stay connected with the past.
We caught up with three young alumni to discuss why they pursued this line of work, and why everyone should be invested in the study of Black history.
Ariel Collier ’19 is the program coordinator for the Florida Prison Education Project at UCF, where she helps provide higher-education opportunities for those who are incarcerated by teaching at local prisons; Collier also works to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline by spreading awareness and offering mentoring for students through a partnership with AMIkids. (You can support FPEP with a donation here.)
Porsha Dossie ’14 ’18MA is a staff historian at the National Park Service in the Office of the Chief Historian, where she helps manage the African American Civil Rights Network; Dossie works to preserve civil rights movement sites through digitization, public programming and more traditional historic preservation efforts.
Brandon Nightingale ’16 ’19MA is the assistant archivist at Bethune-Cookman University — a historically Black university in Daytona Beach, Florida — where he assists with research on the university and its founder, Mary McLeod Bethune.
How does your work tie into Black history and impact people of color today?
Collier: “People of color are mostly impacted by the systems we are working to reconstruct (at FPEP). In Florida, among male incarcerated citizens, 49% were Black non-Hispanics, 38% were White non-Hispanics, 13% were Hispanic, and under 1% were other non-Hispanics. Florida holds more youth in adult jails and prisons than any other state. Florida is one of only three states that give prosecutors the sole, unappealable discretion to prosecute juveniles as adults. The Tough on Crime philosophy has led to over-incarceration; zero-tolerance policies have led to a large push of students of color out of school and into the criminal and juvenile justice system.”
Dossie: “This work is impactful because historic preservation unfortunately has ignored structures with significant ties to Black history and culture as they were deemed insignificant decades ago when the original criteria that determined how sites are selected and preserved in the National Register of Historic Places was created. This is starting to change, and programs like the African American Civil Rights Network are helping to preserve the physical record of Black history and promote these historical resources so they are more accessible to the public.”
Nightingale: “What I do now in this archive — there’s so much in there. Right now, I’m cleaning it up, identify everything that’s in there and moving forward. I want to see how we can get it to the public, through digitization and social media.”
Why is it important for young people today to study and learn this history?
Collier: “‘Know yourself, know you worth’ –Drake”
Dossie: “It’s important because we should have a fuller, more accurate understanding of our human history, and that isn’t possible without knowing or understanding Black history. History as a discipline is making sense of the past to understand how the present comes to be, and when we talk especially about social problems, race relations and structural inequality, those conversations must be informed by the study of history, particularly Black history.”
Nightingale: “It’s vital for everyone living in America and around the world to know where you come from and what was here before you. Everybody is so caught up in technology, but it’s history that we have to keep reminding ourselves of so we don’t repeat it. I know that’s cliché, but it’s so true. Not everyone has to be a historian, but it doesn’t take much to find the history of your family or your community or where you work. History, in general, is an important concept for all human beings.”
What does Black History Month mean to you?
Collier: “Black history month means more people are paying attention to the things I pay attention to 365 days of the year. It’s great, it’s cute, I support it — but there is a lot more our society could be doing to support people of color year-round.”
Dossie: “For me, Black History Month is about commemoration. The reason we have annual observation months like Black History Month or Hispanic Heritage Month is because these communities have often been left out of mainstream narratives in the past. For much of our nation’s history, this was purposeful.
When Dr. Carter G. Woodson first created what was then called Negro History Week in 1926, Black history was not actively taught in most schools or mainstream cultural institutions. Woodson viewed it as a vehicle for not just commemoration, but to enact transformative change. He believed that if children, especially Black children, were more familiar with their history they would have a deeper sense of pride and understanding of the important role Black people have played in United States history since its formation.
Today, nearly 100 years later, Black History Month is still relevant because despite the profound changes I’ve seen even in my lifetime, the struggle for racial equality continues; and Black History Month reminds us of how far we come, but how far we still have to go.”
Nightingale: “It was Black History Month during my sophomore year when I went into the book store — they did a good job of advertising for Black History Month — and I picked up the autobiography of Malcolm X. That was my first glance into what I was studying with history. I saw a lot of similarities between me and Malcolm, and that was the book that really drew me in.
I grew up frustrated with (Black History Month), because there’s just one month dedicated to it. But, if it wasn’t for that I probably would not have come across that Malcolm X book as a young guy in college. More so, it’s a reminder of the accomplishments that Black Americans have made in history. We need those reminders because there could be other people like me — I was on an engineering track. I had no intention of doing scholarly work; I was all numbers. That display for Black History Month drew my attention. If it wasn’t for that, I may not be where I am today.”
What motivated you to pursue the study of Black history?
Collier: “My first class within the minor was Documenting Africana Heritage and Life with the late professor Tony Major during the summer before my junior year, which I took to fulfill a requirement for my major in Visual Arts and Emerging Media Management. His class opened my eyes to so much basic history that I had never learned in my early education. I decided to make it officially my minor after that summer because I felt like I was learning more about myself every class period.”
Dossie: “My interest in Black history started early (I learned to read when I was 3). My parents encouraged my interest in reading by giving me books on Harriet Tubman, Coretta Scott King, and Bessie Coleman to name a few. As I got older, I consumed more books and media about historical figures and movements that interested me. I decided senior year of high school that I wanted to study Black history, particularly Black women’s history, so I became a history major when I enrolled at UCF.”
Nightingale: “I got to UCF in 2012, and I started out in electrical engineering. I was doing OK in the classes, but it just wasn’t for me. I took a class with Dr. (James) Clark, and I was hooked after his history class. The class was speaking to me. I took more history courses, and I was started to read more toward the end of my undergrad career, but I had the opportunity to really dig down deep in grad school in the public history program. Also, professor Luis Martínez-Fernández pulled me to the side and showed me what you can really do with history in museums. He took me to one of my first museums, the Orange County Regional History Center in downtown Orlando. He took me under his wing, and that’s where it all started with me.”
These UCF alumni are making a difference in the world every day. You can impact the next generation of Knights studying history with a gift to the College of Arts and Humanities at the link below.