Recognizing Black History Month in the Arab American Community
BY: Vivian Pham/Ambassador Blogger and Michelle Dermarkar/Contributing Writer
The tradition of Black History Month, while seemingly a relic of time, is only a recent addition to U.S. history. Since its creation in 1976, it has grown from a week-long event to one that takes place for the entire month of February.
Black History Month, formerly known as Negro History Week, came about due to the work of historian Carter G. Woodson, as well as the support of his association Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH). This association, now called the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH), continues to devote time to “researching and promoting achievements by black Americans and other peoples of African descent.”
Today, Black History Month has grown to become a global event that many other countries take part in; Canada has Black History Month in the month of February, like the U.S., while the U.K. typically celebrates it in October.
While expanding its influence across the globe, the reach and applicability of this commemorative month also grows within the U.S. For the Arab American community, it has served as a reminder of the potential for both predecessors and our own selves to create change.
Rather than applying to a single race, the month of February represents something to all races, to all peoples, including Arab Americans. This is best seen in the solidarity shown between the African American and the Arab American community, whom they have continued to support and aid throughout the years.
Below are just a few examples of groups and individuals who have advanced the causes of Arab Americans:
Alice Walker is an author, who is best known for her Pulitzer Prize winning novel entitled The Color Purple. In 2011, she joined the Freedom Flotilla II leaving to Gaza. Her ship name was “Audacity of Hope” and carried letters to the people of Gaza. Despite the danger of the situation, she faced her journey with grace, poise, and a touch of humor.
“If the Israeli military attacks us, it will be as if they attacked the mailman. This should go down hilariously in the annals of history. But if they insist on attacking us, wounding us, even murdering us, as they did some of the activists in the last flotilla, Freedom Flotilla I, what is to be done?”
Dr. Cornel West
Cornel West is a philosopher and activist who served on the Democratic Party Platform drafting committee. He works alongside Bernie Sanders, the president of Arab American Institute, James Zogby, and Rep. Keith Ellison to bring focus to Palestinian rights. He is often outspoken on injustices against Palestinians and promotes equality throughout his work every day.
Well known during the Black Liberation movement in the early 1970s, Angela Davis is an activist and scholar in areas including prison abolition, feminist studies, and women’s rights. She has spoken out about the release of Rasmea Odeh, a Palestinian associate director at the Arab American Action Network, who was detained on account of immigration fraud.
National Football League (NFL) players are boycotting a trip to Israel, and among their ranks are Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril, Seahawks defensive ends; Dolphins wide receiver Kenny Stills; 49ers running back Carlos Hyde; and Broncos running back Justin Forsett.
Despite looking forward to exploring this historic part of the world, these players declined to attend after learning that the Israeli government was planning on using them as “tools” to help in the “intensive fight against the delegitimization and BDS campaigns against Israel.”
Muhammad Ali was an American pro-boxer and activist. Time and time again, he has supported Arab Americans, even when it has risked him his career. From singling out a struggling Arab grocery bagger to visiting Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon to traveling all the way to Israel to demand the release of Lebanese and Palestinians prisoners, he never stopped being an advocate of Arab rights.
Dave Chappelle is an American stand-up comedian, screenwriter, producer, and actor. In 2004, Chappelle donated his time to Seeds of Peace International Camp which brings together American, Israeli, Palestinian, and Iraqi children, as well as children from a variety of other conflicting nations. He also regularly works with Arab American comedian, Mo Amer, to feature for him during his shows.
Lupe Fiasco is an American Muslim rapper, record producer, and entrepreneur. He has attended mosque at Mosque Foundations since a child, and most of his childhood friends were Palestinian. Inspired by revolutions in the Middle East, he wrote the lyrics in his song “Words I Never Said” for his album Lasers:
And these the same people that supposed to be telling us the truth
Limbaugh is a racist, Glenn Beck is a racist
Gaza strip was getting bombed, Obama didn’t say shit
That’s why I ain’t vote for him, next one either
I’ma part of the problem, my problem is I’m peaceful
And I believe in the people
The Movement for Black Lives
Founded as a response to police brutality in the U.S, the Movement for Black Lives has become a major force for race equality and justice. The group has criticized Israel’s treatment of Palestinians by using the words “genocide” and “Apartheid state” in reference to Israeli policies. They have shown their support by calling for the BDS movement against Israel. However, they have received a lot of judgment from the Jewish community for sticking up for the Palestinians.
Founded after the unlawful killing of Trayvon Martin, the Dream Defenders work with like-minded allies to “rebel against the status quo” of U.S. race relations. The Dream Defenders include not only African Americans, but Arab Americans, and Latinos, too. The group takes an annual trip to Palestine each year to educate African Americans on the Israeli occupation in the West Bank.
Despite the increasing political recognition black history has attained, it has stilted recognition on an individual basis. Now that every president from Richard Nixon to even Donald Trump has dubbed February as Black History Month, Black History Month has begun to lose its former significance and message. So, let’s remind ourselves today that social progress happens not once a year, but once a decision, a commitment to stand up for our beliefs. Let’s stand up with our black brothers and sisters to create change across all communities.
Muhammad Ali Jr.
After speaking at a Black History Month event in Jamaica earlier this month, Muhammad Ali Jr., son of Muhammad Ali, was detained by U.S. Customs and Border Protection in Florida. He felt unfairly profiled for his Arabic name and religious beliefs. Despite feeling uncomfortable with the experience, he opened up about his story in order to spread awareness of this issue. His detainment was a direct result of President Trump’s purportedly “non-discriminatory” Muslim travel ban.