Black History Is American History

Julianne Jennings

There is Women’s History Month, Native American History Month, Latino History Month, Jewish American History Month, LGBT Pride Month, National Disability Employment Awareness Month, and so on. With all of these months and days celebrating various ethnic groups and awareness campaigns, are we as a society unconsciously feeding the culture of discrimination and inequality?

February is Black History Month, also known in American as African-American History Month, and is annually observed in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom for the remembrance of important people and events in the history of the African diaspora.

Before Black History Month was created in 1926 in the United States, historian Carter G. Woodson and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History declared the second week of February to be “Negro History Week.” This week was selected because it coincided with the birthday of President Abraham Lincoln on Feb. 12 and the Feb. 14 birthday of African-American social reformer Frederick Douglass. Both dates had been celebrated together by black communities since the late 19th century, according to Daryl Michael Scott in “The Origins of Black History Month,” Association for the Study of African American Life and History, 2011.)

The first Negro History Week received a lukewarm response. Early on, its primary focus was placed on coordinating teaching efforts on the history of American blacks in the nation’s public schools. It was the education departments in North Carolina, Delaware and West Virginia, as well as the city school administrations of Baltimore and Washington, D.C. that gave it the push it needed. Despite its slow universal acceptance, the event was nevertheless regarded by Woodson as “one of the most fortunate steps ever taken by the Association,” and plans for a repeat of the event on an annual basis. (C.G. Woodson, “Negro History Week,” Journal of Negro History, April 1926)

At the time of Negro History Week’s launch Woodson contended that the teaching of black history was essential to ensure the physical and intellectual survival of the race within broader society:

“If a race has no history, it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated. The American Indian left no continuous record. He did not appreciate the value of tradition, and where is he today? The Hebrew keenly appreciated the value of tradition, as is attested by the Bible itself. In spite of worldwide persecution, therefore, he is a great factor in our civilization.” (Woodson, “Negro History Week”)

The Black United Students at Kent State University first proposed expansion of Black History Week to Black History Month in February 1969. One year later, the university celebrated the first Black History Month (Wilson, Milton. “Involvement/2 Years Later: A Report On Programming In The Area Of Black Student Concerns At Kent State University, 1968-1970, Kent State University)

Every U.S. president since 1976 has designated the month of February as Black History Month, beginning with President Gerald Ford, who urged Americans in his speech to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”

But not everyone feels the holiday should be celebrated. In a June 2006 60 Minutes interview, respected actor Morgan Freeman explained to Mike Wallace that he thinks Black History Month is “ridiculous.” He doesn’t want his history to be regulated to just one month, and questions why we celebrate various ethnic minority groups in segregated celebrations, instead of a collective whole. Freeman would like to see the holiday go away as he believes it perpetuates racism. “Black history is American history. To stop racism, we need to stop talking about it,” said Freeman.

If our voices were tools of our collective liberation, why would we want to be silent? Whether silencing occurred by socialization, via authority, through social context, or by self-appointment, in each of these instances, silence is used as a form of control, oppression, and manipulation. Some remain silent for personal and professional reasons.

The rebirth of a Jim Crow cast-like system is a result of being silent. Starting in 1890 with a “separate but equal” status for African Americans, the separation in practice led to conditions for African Americans that were inferior to those provided for white Americans. Moreover, silence denies the very rights supposedly won during the Civil Rights Movement. So, where would we be today if it was not for Civil Rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and many others whose voices made race matter?

Julianne Jennings (Nottoway) is an anthropologist.

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Sammy7's picture
One of our principle values, reciprocity, is a two way street. Where in the Black Community, or the Jewish Community do we find collective reciprocity. Is it there? Where? I do see occasional reports of individual support, but where is their community support? I find instead exploitation of our history, and cultures for profit. I find association with First Peoples’ for the purpose of their cultural gain only. Should this be encouraged? If so why? Cooperation should be encourged, but not disrespect.