The Staying Power of Black History Month

AP Photo/Henry Griffin

Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X smile for photographers in Washington in 1964

Every February, historians, pundits, and celebrities declare Black History Month dead. Why do we need a special month to commemorate African American history, the critics say, when it is no longer ignored the rest of the year?

For almost a century, Black History Month has been debated and disparaged. But in the current political climate, the country needs these midwinter reflections. Not the rah-rah version of a history that sings the praises of African American heroes and heroines and reduces them to postage stamps. But the radical incarnation that exposes the darkest corners of that history and challenges people to seek out unvarnished truths about the meaning and making of the United States.

When Carter G. Woodson created Negro History Week in 1926, the Mississippi Valley Historical Review, the era’s most prestigious U.S. history journal, said the celebration was “animated by a spirit of propagandism which ill accords with the spirit of true scholarship.” The journal editor dismissed Woodson’s aim to teach the world there was “no such thing as superiority or inferiority of races,” and urged all prominent men in arts and letters to stay as far away as possible from Woodson’s enterprise.

That declaration launched decades of debates about the wisdom of setting aside a specially designated time for black history. (The week turned into a month in the mid-1970s, and Congress passed a joint resolution designating February as Black History Month in 1986.)

Woodson, the first and only professional historian whose parents had been born into slavery, launched Negro History Week after he turned 50. He stood on the margins of a patrician, lily-white profession and may well have been the lone scholar with a history Ph.D. who had grown up working with his hands. (He had labored in a West Virginia coal mine as a teenager.) As the founder of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, Woodson was the center of gravity for an ambitious, emerging movement to transform the writing, teaching, and commemoration of American history.

The leading history textbooks of the 1920s portrayed African Americans as “fit” for slavery and “unfit” for citizenship. These books abounded with stereotypes, including the faithful Mammy, the buffoonish black legislator, and the lecherous newly emancipated freedman whose lust for white women knew no bounds.

National Park Service/Public Service

Historian Carter G. Woodson

In Woodson’s view, the crusade to reform a biased history curriculum was even more important than the anti-lynching campaign. “There would be no lynching if it did not start in the schoolroom,” Woodson wrote in the inaugural Negro History Week pamphlet. “Why not exploit or enslave a class that everybody is taught to regard as inferior?” We should emphasize not Negro History, but the Negro in history.” Anticipating the accusation that studying black history would simply replace anti-black prejudice with a self-aggrandizing black chauvinism, Woodson added: “What we need is not a history of selected races or nations but the history of the world void of national bias, race hate, and religious prejudice.”

For white folks, studying black history would be a kind of vaccination, inoculating them against the disease of race prejudice. For black folks, it would be a booster shot of race pride. “If you teach the Negro that he has accomplished as much good as any other race,” Woodson said, “he will aspire to equality and justice without regard to race.”

Some of the earliest black critics of Negro History Week questioned Woodson’s premise that black folks “need a little pride in themselves, if they’re to go places,” as a columnist for the Atlanta Daily World slyly put it. The majority of God’s children, the writer insisted, were racial mongrels—“part Indian, part white and part black.” “When you speak of race loyalty,” he said, “it seems that somebody needs to get together and decide just which one of our grandpas we are going to honor.”

But who deserved Black History Month honors? The topic quickly became controversial. Woodson himself denounced an event he attended in 1935: the organizers projected the faces of the local pastor and school principal on a screen next to those of Booker T. Washington and Frederick Douglass. “History on this occasion,” Woodson said, “had descended to the level of vainglory and self-admiration.” Woodson also disapproved of Negro History Week-themed dances and teas that had turned into social affairs where style counted for more than substance.

After the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, another view emerged: Negro History Week reinforced a dangerous racial separatism. The mid-1950s saw an annual February rush of commentaries in the black press dedicated to the question of whether the week hindered the struggle for “the integration of the Negro in American life.” For some, preserving a separate week for black history was a little too close to maintaining separate black water fountains.

In the 1960s and 1970s, however, a new generation of Black Power activists pilloried Negro History Week as an anodyne, hopelessly old-fashioned Uncle Tom event. The only thing you would learn during this week, Malcolm X said, was that George Washington Carver “took a peanut and made [a] white man rich.” Carver was a scientist, all right, but “he died broke,” he said.    

In recent years, critics argue that Black History Month has outlived its usefulness. This claim has plenty of merit. The once-revolutionary propositions that black history and black culture are integral to the American experience are conventional wisdom now.

The battle for black representation in textbooks, schools, and museums has been won. Black men and women have been important national heroes in textbooks and the minds of students for years. A 2008 survey of high school students published in the Journal of American History found that Martin Luther King Jr., Harriet Tubman, and Rosa Parks topped the list of the “most famous Americans in history,” excluding presidents. Some of the most treasured and distinctively American musical forms are spirituals, blues, jazz and hip-hop. The recently-opened National Museum of African American History and Culture, which sits at “the geographic center of American civic identity,” on the National Mall, is a $ 540 million building devoted to telling the “nation’s story” through “a people’s journey.”

Yet despite the mainstreaming of African American history, Black History Month continues to play an important role in American culture. While polite society eagerly celebrates the contributions and achievements of African Americans, many people still cannot face up to what Woodson called the “whole truth” of U.S. history. That’s why a large segment of the population can say—with a straight face—that Confederate monuments have everything to do with Southern “heritage” and nothing at all to do with white supremacy.

Woodson had one overarching goal: he wanted Americans to reflect on the “wickedness of human exploitation and injustice” that characterized too much of the nation’s past and present. Simply put, Negro History Week was more than a celebration: It was a reckoning. The history lessons delivered over the course of seven days questioned the appealing and naïve myth that U.S. history was a chronicle of unrelenting, forward progress. Instead, audiences learned how disenfranchisement, sharecropping, and Jim Crow segregation shattered the promise of Reconstruction.

The week’s events also featured Woodson and others’ pioneering accounts of the history of racial violence, including the subjection of enslaved black women “to the whims and desires of white men,” the “abysmal horror of lynching,” and the gruesome race riots that gripped cities across the country from 1917 to 1919. Woodson argued that violence against black people was not an anomaly but rather a concerted—and recurrent—strategy to enforce the boundaries of the color line by any means necessary.

Many Americans imagine that the black experience can be understood as a straightforward progression from slavery to freedom. Rather than always moving onwards and upwards, historians like Woodson documented how the journey to the promised land of racial equality was slow, arduous, and marked by setbacks, like the progress along a “tortuous mountain pathway.”

Woodson and his colleagues believed that arming the public with “cold-blooded facts” was the only way to “face the future with clear eyes and a sure vision.” In an age of “alternative facts” and lightning-speed spin—often delivered by a president who dismisses “bad” news as “fake news”—Black History Month provides an immensely refreshing commitment to get to the bottom of things, even if there are hard truths to uncover.

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