I honestly don’t know if Black History Month is a big deal to anyone who doesn’t have to learn about it because it’s a whole section of their American History class. Being educated in a predominantly black city, I was taught about the usual black American luminaries year after year — Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King. But even then, comparing what I learned then to what I know now, it feels like a shallow version of the true history of my forebears. We talked about the Underground Railroad, but we didn’t talk about the conditions that made it necessary, or made Tubman so brave when she kept going back to the South to lead slaves to freedom. We learned about King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, but we never learned about the event surrounding it — a march on Washington to protest the brutal Jim Crow laws that kept black Americans in the South oppressed one hundred years after slavery ended. Today, Black History Month feels more like a feel-good opportunity for companies to flout diversity than anything with meaning or weight.
It’s become increasingly important to me to reconnect with my culture and history, because it’s an indelible part of me. I am a reflection of that history in the eye of everyone who sees me, and if I’m going to be defined by that I should really know the truth of what I represent. I want to know more than the basic bullet points of what’s come before me, the flattened caricatures of the people who have made an impact. I want to dig into the long history of struggle, resilience, and cruelty that ties me to the place I and people like me have been assigned in our society.
So this month I’d like to take up a project of studying the bits of black American history that I’ve always wanted to know more about; the people who have contributed to our history but have been overlooked or mischaracterized; and the concepts that have persisted from our arrival in the United States some three hundred years ago to our fractured, angry time in the present. For me, it’s important not just to learn more about my history; I must also find a way to make sense of it, to connect it to my life today. History is only worth anything if it gives us perspective on our world and gives us the tools to plot a way forward.
The Writing Desk will be given over to this project all month. I’ll study up on the Atlantic slave trade that marked the arrival of our ancestors; the aftermath of the Civil War and how racial oppression was codified by laws and business practices in the South and North of the United States; the civil rights movement of the 60s, the Black Pride movement of the 70s, and all the things that haven’t changed since then. I’ll report back here with the things that I find most interesting, and hopefully provide a different perspective on black history that might make it more interesting for others, too. I’ll do my best to present facts without too much subjective interpretation, but ultimately this is a personal journey for me and I’ll include my personal thoughts as well.
So what’s the deal with Black History Month anyway? It’s a surprisingly recent event with surprisingly old roots. It was first proposed in 1969 by black educators and clubs at Kent State University, and celebrated for the first time one year later. In six years, it was a widespread practice within schools, cultural and community centers, and was recognized on a national level by President Gerald Ford during his speech for the nation’s bicentennial. From there, it was picked up by the United Kingdom in 1987, Canada in 1995, and Ireland in 2014.
It’s a trip that this is so new — only less than 50 years old. The precursor to Black History Month was “Negro History Week”, though, an initiative thought up by black American historian Carter G. Woodson — widely regarded as the “father of Black History”. Negro History Week was meant to be the second week of February, since that happens to fall on the birthdays of Abe Lincoln (the 12th) and escaped slave-turned-abolitionist Frederick Douglass (the 14th). From the jump, Woodson wanted to make the week a coordinated teaching of black Americans’ contributions to American history among the nation’s public schools. It was picked up in North Carolina, Delaware, West Virginia, Baltimore and Washington DC before spreading out from there. Over the decades, it increased in popularity until the trailblazers at Kent State carried it further.
Now, Black History Month is an American institution in our schools and its influence has spread to the rest of the culture. The celebration has been controversial for a while, with people wondering why we don’t include the contribution of black Americans (and Canadians, and Britons) all year ’round. Others wonder why we should even have a month dedicated to the history of one minority culture. I won’t get into those arguments, but I will say that it’s useful, even necessary, for me to dive into my own history. If an artificially-created month is what I need to do so, then I’ll take it.
I’m very excited to learn as much as I can over the next month, and I’m looking forward to our discussion about this overlooked section of American history.