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The Gillnetter

The Gillnetter

Black History Month 2024: why, when, and what we celebrate

Cyan Clements
Artist Cyan Clements celebrates the joy and diversity of black culture.
Why, When, and What?
Why We Celebrate

So why do we celebrate Black History Month? First of all, it’s to highlight Black History during the historically-important month of February, and encourage people to learn more about Black history during the rest of the year.

It’s also important to give credit where credit is due. For years, America has done a subpar job at recognizing the struggles, contributions, and achievements of black Americans. From exploiting the labor of enslaved people back in the slavery era, to disenfranchising black voters, to turning a blind eye to the innovations of black scientists, creatives, and activists, America owes a lot to the black community.

America has also benefited greatly from these contributions: It is indisputable that America would be a significantly different and likely less interesting place without the ideas and creations of the African American community.

What many people may not know is that each year there is a theme for Black History Month in order to highlight different aspects of African American culture. This year, it's African Americans and the Arts. 

 A common catchphrase during BHM is “there is no American history without black history,” and this is especially true for the culture and art of America. It's important to bring focus to the history of African American music and fashion in particular, as black innovation laid the ground work for much of American popular culture.

When We Celebrate

Today, many object to the fact that Black History Month is celebrated on the shortest and often coldest month of the year. However, Black History Month has a history dating back nearly 100 years that explains this seemingly peculiar choice.

In 1926, black academic Carter G. Woodson established the second week of February as Negro History Week. To Woodson, establishing Negro History Week was a way to encourage the American public to reckon with the history and present realities of black American culture.

Negro History Week was designated the second week of February because it coincided with the birthdays of two influential men to the history of black Americans: Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln (born on the 14th and 12th respectively). Douglass was born into slavery, but chose to celebrate on the 14th because of a nickname given to him by his mother: Little Valentine.

Black History Month was first officially recognized in 1976, by President Gerald Ford, extending the celebration from a week to a month.

Throughout his life, Woodson expressed disappointment with the public reception of Negro History Week. He viewed his efforts as a stepping stone to wider recognition that would not be isolated to a single week. In his mind, recognizing black history was a year-round commitment, and not something to be taken care of in a few days.

What We Celebrate

What specifically did the African American community contribute to America’s rich cultural fabric? Spanning many musical genres and visual art forms, the artistic sensibilities of black creatives are everywhere in American pop culture.

The Blues and R&B

The Blues is a pioneering music genre whose impact is still felt today in modern music. The creation of the blues is poorly documented, but it's believed to have been created in the mid-to-late 1800s by formerly enslaved black people and their descendants working on plantations. Notable Blues artists include BB King, Ma Rainey, and Muddy Waters. Artists like these would later go on to influence artists like Elvis Presley and Jimi Hendrix.

Later on in the 1900s came Rhythm & Blues, better known as R&B. This genre came at a time when black people were moving from the rural south to the city, and so the sound of the music mirrored their newfound environment. R&B combined elements of jazz, gospel and blues to appeal to the younger generation. Key R&B artists include Johnny Otis and Ruth Brown, and popular R&B artists today include Boyz II Men, TLC, Usher and Toni Braxton.

Soul & Funk & Beyond

Along with the tense political climate of the 1960s came Soul & Funk. Like much of the music around this time, Soul & Funk was a reflection of the anxiety and opinions that Americans held during this period. It combined soul and gospel for a refreshing new sound. Undeniably, one of the most influential figures of Soul & Funk was Aretha Franklin, known as the Queen of Soul. 

Fast forward to the late 70s and early 80s, where young African Americans living in New York were developing a sound that combined all of the previously-mentioned genres, which came to be known as rap and hip hop. 

New-school rappers such as Run DMC and Grandmaster Flash began to experiment with different electronic sounds, such as synthesizers and drum machines. Rap and hip hop in the beginning was very light-hearted and fun, with a focus on parties and dance. 

By the mid 1980s, the message of rap shifted to focus on the struggles and harsh realities of living in the inner cities, mirroring the original meaning behind Blues music. Now, rappers continue to draw inspiration from the artists that came before them, often sampling tracks or making beats inspired by early New York rap. 


With the rise of rap and hip-hop came streetwear, inspired by the hip hop culture at the time in New York and also by elements of punk fashion from Japanese streetwear and well-known sportswear brands at the time, such as Fila or Adidas. Rappers at the time had a heavy influence on streetwear trends, all depending on deals certain artists got or what was worn in music videos or during performances.

NBA athletes also had a lasting impact on streetwear, with shoes like Jordans and clothing like basketball jerseys still being popular streetwear items today. The popularity of sneaker culture and shoe collection crazes was initially made popular within the black community, and later spread outward.


Along with fashion, the visual aesthetics of black hair, cosmetics, and beauty have risen to popularity in the cultural zeitgeist in recent decades. Hairstyles like cornrows, box braids, wicks, and afros are now sported by many celebrities and public figures, from Lupita Nyong’o to Michelle Obama to Jay-Z. Makeup and hair is being increasingly recognized as an art form in earnest, thanks in part to the contributions of these African American taste-makers.

Black beauty care also has a storied history. Born in Louisiana in 1867 to an enslaved family, Madam C. J. Walker currently holds the title of first female self-made millionaire in American history through her cosmetic company, Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company. Walker made her fortune through the creation and sale of black beauty products and black hair care products. She was the first freewoman in her family, born after the Emancipation Proclamation, and a crucial figure in the development of black beauty products.

Now, black cosmetics and beauty brands are bigger than ever, from Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty makeup company to Taraji P Henson’s TPH hair care brand.

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About the Contributors
Cyan Clements
Cyan Clements, Staff Writer
Cyan Clements is a senior at GHS and is a second year writer for The Gillnetter. She is a honors student and takes pride in being the resident artist for the newspaper. Outside of school, Cyan enjoys drawing, trying new hobbies, and spending time with friends and family. She also enjoys collecting various different things, such as albums and dolls. You can contact her at [email protected]
Aurelia Harrison (they/them) is a senior and Editor in Chief for the Gillnetter. Their interests include writing, thinking about writing, music, and talking. They work at The Bookstore of Gloucester on the weekends, are a member of drama club, and love nature walks and famed Colombian pop star Shakira. They have been published in lit journals such as IAMB Magazine and The Empty Inkwell, and have received awards for their poetry and journalism. If you happen to engage Aurelia in conversation about philosophy, The Hunger Games, or Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours” album, bring a sleeping mask. You have been warned. Email them at [email protected]  

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