Initially, Black History Month was only a week. Founded in 1926 by Carter G. Woodson, it was dubbed Negro History Week before expanding into a month long observance. Why was it necessary? Well, for obvious reasons. African Americans were not regarded as an intricate component of society and Woodson deemed it as imperative that Black people are included in all historical discussions. At the same time, Woodson, along with other great African American historians, John Hope Franklin, John Henrik Clarke, W.E.B. Dubois, Martin Delaney, Arthur Schomburg, and others, were reacting to the theoretical assumptions by many White historians and scientists that African people did not have a history of any significance nor were they intellectually capable of producing any worthwhile contributions because they were ‘biologically inferior’. Woodson and company set out to disprove these grossly biased and racist assumptions by developing a separate body of thought and field of reference.
Woodson went on to pen many books including the classic, ‘The Mis-Education of the Negro’ and founded the Association for the Study of African American Life and History; a research institute that published The Journal of Negro History in 1916. It was later renamed The Journal of African American History and still available. As Woodson and company went about the business of constructing a historical account of African Americans, they simultaneously became historical figures in their own right. To that end, Black History Month becomes much of a celebration of Woodson’s life as it is quite unfair to honor the masses and disregard the leader. Ya dig?
Given the spirit of the times that fueled the Black Power and Civil Rights Movements, Black History Month was perhaps more revered than I believe it is now. As a matter of fact, when I was growing up in the 80s, it was treated more so like a bothersome task of the school system and the teachers did little more than offered a list of ‘safe’ Black folks for students to write a book report; by ‘safe’, I mean that Malcolm X, Huey P. Newton, Angela Davis, and Stokely Carmichael were not really included on the list–only Dr. King and some more folks. By the time I got to the 8th grade, Black History Month was a contrived event; if I had to hear about Dr. Charles Drew, Ralph Bunche, Ida B. Wells, and Mary Mcleod-Bethune ONE more time…. It wasn’t until I started spending countless hours in that two-story library in my hometown that I discovered other largely ignored Black figures. Further still, as an adult, it seems as though I’ve become familiarized with more and more Black figures that went under the radar during my childhood and teen years.
Sadly, unless someone corrects me, I don’t think Black History Month has evolved beyond my grade and high school years. About two years ago, my mentee was undergoing the same programming at her inner city middle school during Black History Month. Teachers were only providing a list of Black folks for book reports—Malcolm X has made the list, at least (thanks Spike Lee). Compared to my mentee’s teachers, my teachers, who were all disinterested and unmotivated, were rather sprightly. Understandably, there’s only so much that the teachers can do given the systematic constraints and ongoing social conditions that so many of our children endure.*
*This statement was added for the benefit of teachers. I don’t need ya’ll reading this and blasting me. We’re good, right? 🙂
In a larger context, Black History Month is somewhat undergoing an attack. There are some who believe that Black History Month is unnecessary now that the country has its first African American at the helm as POTUS. They regard it as separatism and unbefitting to the so-called ‘post-racial, color-blind society’ in which we live now. Oh yeah? On the contrary, many important aspects of Black history (and, let me add, any other history of people of color) are still largely omitted from the textbooks of our children and furthermore, many of us do not get an opportunity to truly capture the breadth of Black History until either studying it in college or striking out on our own as life-long learners. Black History Month was conceptualized during the initial scourges of Jim Crowism and segregation, however, its purpose has always been larger than integration.
Compared to most of the world, America is among one of the youngest countries. Unlike many nations, every citizen here can trace their roots to another land with its own history, leaving a huge void in the American story that begins with the coming of the Mayflower. These voids must be filled appropriately with accurate histories that connect themselves with the dominant history, or else it will continue to cripple our ability to relate…and more importantly, accept and understand each other. Ya dig? At the same time, it will give each one of us the total picture, putting many things into perspective while establishing the truth (Can’t get too deep with that one. I don’t have the space.)
On another note, Black History Month is just as significant now because of the need to connect the African Diaspora;constructing a full history of a people with an ever-present struggle for identity. Since the tragedy in Haiti, I’ve been wondering if there are some African Americans who are unable to see themselves in the faces of their Haitian brothers and sisters. I believe if we (Black folks) had a richer knowledge of our history, Pat Robertson would not have been able to practically get away undisputed with his comments regarding Haiti. For that sake alone, we need to move past the mere activity of rolling off the accomplishments of selected individuals and actually engage in the work of thorough research, critique, and analysis; after all, history is not so much defined by past occurrences so much as it is the foundation and explanation of present-day realities.
Guess what? That’s gonna take longer than a month per year.