The prestigious historian and author of The Mis-Education of the Negro, Dr. Carter G. Woodson originally conceived Black History Month, also known as African American History Month, in 1929 in an effort to acknowledge and honor the contributions made by people of African descent to the history of the United States of America. It was originally called Negro History Week. The 2nd week of February was chosen because it coincided with the birthdays of Frederick Douglas and Abraham Lincoln. The problem is centered on the notion that the historic contributions of Black people in America have been intentionally excluded from the nation’s history lessons both formally and informally. The evolution of the commemorative directive from week to month and Negro to Black and Black to African American opens up another conundrum all together.
The systemic exclusion of historic perspectives, critical discourse, and interrogation of the history of the United States from marginalized voices beyond those of the dominant culture is in stark contradiction to the platitudes of freedoms on which this nation was founded. Whereas in higher education, college courses in departments of Ethnic Studies, Political Science, Gender and Sexuality, Women’s Studies, History and of course African American Studies embrace voices of distinction and dissent that challenge long held beliefs and perspectives of history and political discourse that support systemic racism and institutional bias, most primary and secondary educational institutions tend to support and teach history in the way it has always been taught with an occasional pause to celebrate Black History Month or the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday.
A museum inscription under a bronze statue of a huge lion roaring and up on his haunches reads “The Lion: Most feared beast of the jungle.” An African proverb commenting on that inscription says “I wonder how differently the inscription might read if the lion told the story.” History’s story is not told without bias or perspective. There is no such thing as pure fact without perspective—or judgment. The inclusion of “some” facts and the exclusion of others have, essentially, an inherent perspective that could be for the purpose of pushing a particular agenda or outcome. The teaching of American history in “traditional” classrooms across the United States has, as its core objective, to teach and ignite patriotism and allegiance to our national interests. This is evidenced by the way it is taught, the course content, and the perspectives included as foundational. Dr. Woodson recognized that the contributions of Negroes (African Americans) were not adequately represented in the accounts of American history being taught in educational institutions neither from K-12 nor in colleges and universities nationwide. He conceived the setting aside of a week which was then expanded to a month in 1969 when a Black student group advocated for the expansion of Black History Week at Kent State University. The following year Black History Month was celebrated at the university and six years later in 1976 President Gerald Ford made it a national celebration. President Ford urged Americans to, “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”
Dr. Woodson hoped that the celebration could eventually be eliminated as Americans began to acknowledge Black history as inextricably bound to American history and recognized as such foundationally in schools and academic institutions universally. Eighty-four years later we have yet to realize Dr. Woodson’s dream. Many people (some of them African American) reject the idea of Black History Month and disassociate themselves from engaging in its celebrations or events. Actor Morgan Freeman, for example, believes that Black history is American history and should be studied as such and no more. I cannot disagree with the “spirit” of his comment although the application and practice of that sentiment is far from realized as a standard in our nation’s classrooms. From the vantage point of a parent and grandparent, it appears to me that the teaching of American history is still woefully deficient. I have had the same arguments with history teachers, as parent and grandparent, that my parents had when I was the student.
So eighty-four years later, it seems that the adage “separate and not equal” still underscores the stark contrast in the teaching of American history and the celebration of Black History Month. How long should we continue the tradition? Why is it still so difficult for the teaching and study of American history to be inclusive of the histories of ALL Americans? Your thoughts and comments are welcome. Bring it from the Margins2theCenter.
Tawnya Pettiford-Wates, Ph.D.
Artistic Director and Founder of The Conciliation Project www.theconciliationproject.org and a Professor of Theatre at VCU
Up next week- The Emancipation Proclamation Myth-Was Freedom its goal?