I’ve often heard people speak of an imagined conspiracy by White folks to short change us by “giving us the shortest month in the year to celebrate Black History. This is far from the truth and reveals a gap in our historical narrative, now known as Black History. I’d like to fill this gap with facts related to the creation of Negro History Week and Black History Month.
This morning I watched one of my favorite TV shows from childhood, Daniel Boone. I loved the theme song and found the show engaging in my youth. Years later as I watch some of the episodes, from one of the first weekly shows filmed in color, I still find some of the themes hold my interest.
This morning’s episode (season 6, episode 1) is all about Daniel’s son Israel and how he and his fellow students fought to include Indian studies in their school curriculum. This piece of revisionist history flies in the face of reality. In reality Indian Studies is still not included in grade school curricula. The episode “Readin, Riting, and Revolt” premiered on March 12, 1970, just one week after the first celebration of Black History Month. At that time the issue in the schools was the teaching of Black History, not Indian history.
Like the Indians, the American Negro was said not to have a history, therefore there were no Negro Studies Departments, lecturers or chairs at universities; not even at America’s historically Black colleges (HBCU’s). There were a few individuals who pioneered the documenting of Negro history and it’s study, but they were far and few between, struggling to withstand the onslaught of an American educational system that considered the study of Negro history to be “incompetent, irrelevant and immaterial.”
Carter G. Woodson has been dubbed the father of “Negro History,” however he was not alone in the effort to document the history of the Negro race. The documentation of African history goes all the way back to the age of the pyramid builders in Egypt and the historical writings in the Torah, the Christian Bible and the Quran. The Greeks, Romans, Ethiopians and Muslim scholars also documented much of the history of African people. Among the earliest recorders of Negro history are the likes of George Washington Williams, Delilah Beasley and Joel Augustus Rogers. Along with Carter G. Woodson, these individuals were some of the pioneers who forged a history for a people considered historical pariahs.
African people have been essential in the founding of the U.S. and it’s prominence as a world leader in every field, yet our story is still no more than a footnote in classrooms from Long Island, NY to Long Beach, CA. Why is that? Essentially, it boils down to one word, slavery.
With the advent of chattel slavery, the capture and exploitation of African peoples from Cape Town to Cairo, there was a need to dehumanize the subjugated Africans. In the course of dehumanizing Black people our story was deemed historically “incompetent, irrelevant and immaterial,” which is exactly how Indian Studies was described in the Daniel Boone episode I mentioned above.
This 1st wave of Negro historians were primarily concerned with balancing the historical scales, by showing how civilized Negroes were and proving that we were as good as White folks. Williams’ book The History of the Negro Race in America 1619–1880 was published in 1882 and is considered the 1st overall history of the American Negro. Carter G. Woodson published The Negro in Our History in 1922, while J. A. Rogers worked to popularize African history by publishing articles in numerous journals and periodicals, which eventually culminated in the publication of his findings in books, like The World’s Great Men of Color, 2 volumes, in 1947 and numerous other books, all self-published.
These early books represent some of the earliest scholarly attempts to document the history of the American Negro. I make a distinction here between Negro History and Black History.
The advent of Black History came about in the 1960’s with the rise to national and international prominence of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. Martin was the last great Negro Leader, while Malcolm was the most influential leader of the Black Power Movement. The Negro struggle was characterized by a desire to be accepted as equals by Whites, while the Black Power Movement was characterized by a desire to be free of the mental, economic and spiritual shackles of White folks.
When Carter G. Woodson founded Negro History Week, in 1926, he did so with the intention of proving that the Negro was every bit as good as the White man. In fact, the selection of the date for the celebration was determined by the fact that Frederick Douglass and Abe Lincoln had their birthdays within that one week period.
Black History Month, which was 1st celebrated at Kent State University, was celebrated with the intention of highlighting the beauty of Black history and culture, as something distinct from American history and culture. Essentially, it took the idea of Negro History week and turned it upside down, creating a one month celebration of Blackness with a focus on the continuity between African American history and culture and that of our brothers and sisters from Africa and beyond.
Contrary to popular belief there was no conspiracy to celebrate Black History Month during the shortest month of the year. We decided to celebrate Black History Month in February, in honor of the freedom fighter, Frederick Douglass and the historian, Carter G. Woodson. Of course, President Lincoln’s birthday still falls right in the middle of Black History Month, but little mention is made of him or his “Emancipation Proclamation.” That’s probably the biggest difference between Negro History Week celebrations of the past and present day Black History Month celebrations, instead there’s been an attempt to replace Old Abe with Martin Luther King, as the new standard bearer for liberal Whites.