February IS Black History
Americans have recognized black history annually since 1926, first as “Negro History Week” and later as “Black History Month.” What you might not know is that Black history had barely begun to be studied-or even documented-when the tradition originated. Although blacks have been in America at least as far back as colonial times, it was not until the 20th century that they gained a respectable presence in the history books.
Blacks Absent from History Books
We owe the celebration of Black History Month, and more importantly, the study of Black history, to Dr. Carter G. Woodson. Born to parents who were former slaves, he spent his childhood working in the Kentucky coal mines and enrolled in high school at age twenty. He graduated within two years and later went on to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard. The scholar was disturbed to find in his studies that history books largely ignored the Black American population-and when blacks did figure into the picture, it was generally in ways that reflected the inferior social position they were assigned at the time.
So, when Carter G. Woodson began Negro History Week in 1926, he chose the second week of February to encompass the birth dates of both Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. Its purpose then was to teach some and remind others that the history of black people in America was not simply the story of subjugation. Woodson recognized that, shell-shocked from slavery and demoralized by Jim Crow, black Americans had to build a vision that would give them the confidence to partake in the fruits of freedom. “We have a wonderful history behind us,” Woodson said. “If you are unable to demonstrate to the world that you have this record, the world will say to you, ‘You are not worthy to enjoy the blessings of democracy or anything else.’ ” But Woodson—himself a historian and only the second African-American to receive a Ph.D. from Harvard (W.E.B. Du Bois being the first)—recognized the radicalism inherent in a call to educate and inspire African-Americans. For, if Negro History Week asked blacks to slough off the scars of oppression, it also demanded that whites acknowledge their role as oppressors. Woodson’s aim was also to rebut the inaccurate and insulting stereotyping that then passed for knowledge about African-Americans—such as the canards that black people aren’t as intelligent as other races and are more prone to criminality and dancing. And sadly, nearly 100 years and a civil-rights movement later, too many people still believe that.
Instead of using Black History Month to demand that the promise of freedom inherent in the Constitution be given to all its citizens, our culture has given in to the impulse to see the month as the commemoration of “a civic fairy tale,” as NEWSWEEK editor Jon Meacham wrote in his book Voices in Our Blood.
“Everything came together in August 1963, when Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and conjured his Promised Land … A moment later, it seems now, the ‘White Only’ signs came down, the polling booths opened up, and the Dream was more or less fulfilled.” For Black History Month to once again seem culturally relevant, part of its time must be spent asking why there are still so many negative portrayals of black people in our culture—we can’t just spend all 28 days talking about the nice ones. And rather than wasting time bemoaning the existence of Black History Month, why don’t we use it to proselytize for the issues that need to be more fully covered and understood the other 337 days of the year—such as failing inner-city public schools, institutionalized poverty, health-care disparities, and job discrimination?
Black history is American history, no doubt. But Black History Month is a measure of how fully or accurately our story is being told and a reminder of the work yet to be done.
Meanwhile, February has much more than Douglass and Lincoln to show for its significance in black American history. For example:
February 23, 1868:
W. E. B. DuBois, important civil rights leader and co-founder of the NAACP, was born.
February 3, 1870:
The 15th Amendment was passed, granting blacks the right to vote.
February 25, 1870:
The first black U.S. senator, Hiram R. Revels (1822-1901), took his oath of office.
February 12, 1909:
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was founded by a group of concerned black and white citizens in New York City.
February 1, 1960:
In what would become a civil-rights movement milestone, a group of black Greensboro, N.C., college students began a sit-in at a segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter.
February 21, 1965:
Malcolm X, the militant leader who promoted Black Nationalism, was shot to death by three Black Muslims.