The first name that comes to mind for most of us would probably be the late Martin Luther King Jr. It's a shame that I'm from Memphis and have only been to the National Civil Rights Museum (the site of his assassination) once in my life, but I hope to go back someday soon. Everyone in and around the mid-south should be sure to visit, if you haven't done so. It really sheds some light on our history, and it's interesting to see how far we've come (and haven't come, in some ways). People like to bring up the flaws in his character and some of the darker things he'd done in his life, but he changed us all from what would would (or could) be as a people, and for that we owe him our thanks.
There are many other individuals that we can point out when talking about black history, like Ida B. Wells, Rosa Parks, and Malcolm X, but it's hard to talk about black history without mentioning music. Something I love and believe was birthed from the proverbial womb of black people in this country is the spiritual. Sure, the victims of slavery were thrown into a religion they knew little about initially, but they made it their own, and used music as a means for having hope of something better for the future. These songs were passed down through the generations, and many of them are very mainstream and well known even today. Take the song "Follow the Drinking Gourd" for instance. In itself, this song isn't particularly the most religious of spirituals, and it wouldn't make loads of sense in today's society, but it was important enough to the people who used it to survive to pass it down, and it's a staple in the black spiritual repertory today. One that I've noticed only black people seem to know about, however, is the "Negro National Anthem". I don't love the title, because I believe we all live in one nation under God, but the idea behind the lyrics is good. Look up this tune if you don't know it.
Another black-inspired musical genre to survive time is rap/hip-hop. I know many classical musicians turn their noses up at this sort of music, but I don't - I'm a proponent of anything musical (as more of us should be). On many occasions I've talked with people about rap and the first thing out of their mouths is something along the lines of "I had no idea it would have lasted this long when it first came out!" Of course, I'm not old enough to have been a part of its beginnings, but I definitely see and feel it's affects, as we all do. From clothing styles to rims on your car, rap has influenced American culture in a big way, and I think it's important and interesting to note. If you think about how many styles of music have gone in and out of the lime light, it seems like rap and hip-hop has stood it's ground. Even if a song isn't blatantly rap, there seems to be a hip-hop/R&B undertone to a lot of it. Pop music in general has been blending more together lateley, and I think it's cool. I still remember when *NSYNC's song, "Gone", came on a black radio station. This was shocking to many people, because a group of white boys came out with a song that actually worked on a black station! Today we don't think twice about it, but I'm sure artists like Eminem faced some adversity at first. There are many negative things rap has been accused of in the past (not all untrue), but I think we should focus on the good - yes, a lot of it is good! You don't have to love it, but you should at least tip your hat to it.
There are so many other "black" things that can be explored in honor of Black History Month, from the rise in popularity of soul food, to the huge discussion of black hair. We all have been touched by the culture in some way, and coming more in contact with this and other cultures only makes us, and Americans, a greater people. So this month, do something black. Read poetry by black authors, learn more about clip-on weaves, or simply have a peanut butter sandwich (thanks to George Washington Carver). Personally, I'll stick with listening to my black spirituals, and all of those other "old time" gospel medlies I grew up on.
...and by the way, as much as I love hip-hop culture, I think "saggin'" is kinda silly.
Listening to: Swing Low, Sweet Chariot