The likes rack up on Instagram and Facebook for virtual events sponsored by the Rev. Al Sharpton’s Long Island chapter, said E. Reginald Pope Sr., regional director of the activist preacher’s National Action Network.
"But then, when the event occurs, the same person that was going to participate, they’re not there," said Pope, recalling a recent youth huddle, held on Zoom, that drew maybe 20 people. That’s a fraction of who might ordinarily attend in person — during non-pandemic times, of course.
Organizers of Black History Month commemorations from Long Island and beyond face a challenge that has become all-too familiar across events of all sorts over the last 11 months: how, without endangering participants during a pandemic, to maintain tradition for what has always been held in person.
Black History Month began in 1926 as Negro History Week. Key to what became of the project — started by a Harvard Ph.D. named Carter G. Woodson, who was frustrated that Black people were left out of American history and classroom curricula — were gatherings including clubs that met in person, lessons taught in person and historical plays performed in person.
"Not to know what one’s race has done in former times is to continue always a child," Woodson wrote in a pamphlet in 1926. "If a race has no history, if it has no worth-while tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated."
Beginning in 1976, for the nation’s bicentennial, what was commemorated for one week expanded to a monthlong commemoration.
February was chosen because it encompasses the birthdays of both President Abraham Lincoln and the abolitionist Frederick Douglass.
Coverage and photographs of Negro History Week and Black History Month look as if from a bygone time, without social distancing and other anti-pandemic measures: a jazz trombonist crowded in 1970 with students at Roosevelt Junior-Senior High School; youngsters staging a skit and spirituals during regular story hour at the Freeport library in 1946; a member of the all-Black 99th Squadron telling an in-person audience about the response to his first application to the Army Air Corps in the late 1930s: "Dear Sir, at this time there are no facilities for training colored persons in the service."
Still, for 2021, events span the Island and include projects inspired by contemporary Black art, lectures on racism, the civil rights movement, jazz and soul music, Jim Crow laws, songs of liberation, Motown, and the African Burial Ground in lower Manhattan. Most, if not all, of the events are being held online.
Linda White, Elmont Memorial Library’s adult program coordinator, traces a historical line from the past — eyes kept on the prize and dreams deferred — to today, reflected in movements like Black Lives Matter.
"With everything that’s going on, I think Black history is an asset to the community, and everyone should learn about things that have gone on and things that are now going on that have brought us to this level," said White, who has held her position for 15 years. "The March on Washington with Dr. King, and hoping that that would change a lot of the things," said White, "but really, it hasn’t."
Events being held virtually by the library include a discussion Tuesday of the diaspora of the population from lower Manhattan to Harlem, with a focus on Black people’s contribution to cultural and political life — the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes, Aaron Douglas, Duke Ellington, as well as influencers like Malcolm X and Adam Clayton Powell. Then, on Thursday, there’s a lecture on "The Black America Show," presented in the 1890s to "show the people of the North the better side of the colored man and woman of the South," intended as entertainment and education. (Free registration is at elmontlibrary.org or by telephone at 516-354-5280, ext. 223.)
Like much of what the library does during the pandemic, the programs are virtual, White said. Still, the pedagogical aim has not changed.
"I hope it’ll be a learning experience for those who don’t know, those who do know, and for those who refuse to understand," she said.
Ujima Jame, Nassau County vice president of Sharpton’s National Action Network, said Black History Month strives to help complete the American story.
"In order to create some kind of balance and understand people, you have to understand history. Certainly if there’s a gap in your history you’re not getting a complete view of what actually happened. We can definitely see that in the reflection over the past four years," he said. He added: "You can’t talk about making America great without talking about the impact and contribution that Black people had."