While I was growing up in Guyana, I studied History as a subject in school. It was not African History or European History; it was History as a collective. History has always been one of my favourite subjects because I have always had an interest in people, cultures, migration patterns, diet, socio, economic and political structures. From the dawn of time, History has illustrated so much that it has always fascinated me. In another life, I may have been a Historian.
Let us shift to American History and discuss Black History and Black History Month. There are several arguments concerning this Month. Some argue there is no need to dedicate an entire month to celebrate African-Americans; others say it is racism and the long list of arguments continue I decided to do some research to determine the purpose and importance of this celebration.
What is Black History Month?
February has been designated Black History Month but what is Black History Month? Black History Month as the name suggests is a month dedicated to the study and celebration of the contributions of Africans in the diaspora. It is celebrated annually.
How did it get started anyway?
Black History month started as Negro History Week in February 1926 by Carter G. Woodson, an African American historian. Woodson became inspired after attending a national celebration of the 50th anniversary of emancipation. The celebration attracted thousands of African Americans; they would travel across the country to view presentations depicting African American progress since emancipation. After attending the celebration in February 1926, Woodson and his colleagues formed the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH) to promote black life and History.
photo cred: denverlibrary.org
Why was February chosen?
It was believed the week in February that was chosen was significant since it was the birth week of two great Americans that played pivotal roles in black history. Those men were Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. Douglass, a former slave, was vocal in advocating for the freedom of slaves and equal rights for women. Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States, advocated for the freedom of all slaves throughout the country. Woodson skillfully inserted Negro History Week as an extension of the existing traditions that were in place to commemorate Douglass and Lincoln.
What was Woodson hoping to accomplish?
Woodson, however, was aiming to build more than the tradition of celebrating Douglas and Lincoln. He was interested in focusing on the numerous black men and women who had contributed to human overall advancement.
What happened next?
Woodson received an overwhelming response to his creation. Negro History Week quickly spread across the country. The 1920s was a Renaissance for the Black Community. It was a post-war generation that was brimming with racial pride and consciousness. African Americans were moving from rural communities to urban centers. The black middle class was expanding and was developing an appreciation for black literature and culture. Demand for Black Literature was on the increase to support the Black History Clubs that were springing up.
The Introduction of Black History into High Schools in some communities
Woodson and his Association met the demand. They prepared for the annual celebration by selecting a theme and providing the necessary study material and lesson plans. Those preparations resulted in High Schools in some communities forming Negro History Clubs. ASNLH expanded across the country since several groups wanted to participate in the process of re-educating the black community and the nation. In 1937, with Mary McLeod Bethune’s persuading, The Negro History Bulletin was established by Woodson. The Negro History Bulletin was a monthly newsletter for educators like high school teachers. It provided articles with ideas for lesson plans on African American History. The Negro History Bulletin resource is still in publication today under the name the Black History Bulletin.
The Main Idea: Promoting Black America’s contribution
As the popularity of Negro History Week spread, many persons started seeking to take advantage of the shift in interest in Black History. Many so-called experts were coming out of the woodwork. Negro History Week was becoming commercialized, and Woodson had a task in promoting the celebration with the authenticity for which it was created: the promotion of Black America’s contribution.
Leaders and Pioneers in the African American Community
Woodson’s Ultimate Vision
Woodson’s ultimate vision was to have Negro History Year. He believed that Black History was way too integral to American History to be restricted to one week. In the 1940s, a conscious effort was made to implement the study of Negro History in High Schools in black communities. In the South, Freedom Schools – alternative schools that focused on liberating people from oppression – included black History into their syllabus to further social change.
Negro History Month
The change from Negro History Week to Negro History Month started in 1940 in Virginia. In the mid-1960s, a cultural activist Frederick H. Hammaurabi started celebrating Negro History Month. This trend continued into the late 1960s as young black college students grew more conscious of themselves and their ties to Africa. In 1976, Woodson’s Association was successful in influencing the change officially, from Negro History Week to Negro History Month. Ever since it has been endorsed annually by every American President.
Black History Month
The UK government officially recognised Black History Month in 1987, the Canadian government in 1995, and the Irish government in 2010.
Leaders and Pioneers in the African American Community
While I knew what Black History Month was about and what it represents, I never did any real research on its origins. So much information was uncovered that it was difficult to summarise. I agree with Woodson; Black American History is American History. There is a place for it in History books. It should not be restricted to a week or a month in the school curricula. To answer why an entire month needs to be dedicated to its observance, Black History Month is serving its purpose of raising awareness just like Woodson intended; there is no racism in this effort. It helps to educate everyone. African Americans were more than free labour, and our History started before slavery.
I have never depended on an education system, wholly and solely for the education of my children. I encourage parents to get a few books on Africans’ achievements in the diaspora and in general and educate themselves and their children. Teach them about African accomplishments in every area, pre- and post-slavery. After all, knowledge is power.