Although presidents and politicians often seek to occupy the limelight during Black History Month, celebrities really are not central to its importance or its purpose. Black History Month is meant to be about everyday citizens and their rightful places in our nation's future and especially its past.
It all started when one young educator who is now revered as the Father of Black History, Dr. Carter G. Woodson, was dismayed to discover that the history of his own people had been largely left out of the history books written about his country. Carter Godwin Woodson was born in 1875. He didn't begin any formal education until his late teens because he had labored as a child in the coal mines of Virginia. However, once he began studying, he never stopped. He eventually became the second African American to receive a Ph.D. in history from Harvard.
After completing his doctorate, Dr. Woodson dedicated his life to two Herculean tasks...
Dr. Woodson set his goals high: 1) vindicating the black race from the charge of inferiority and, 2) restoring Africans and peoples of African descent to their proper place in the annals of history. His field of battle was scholarship and knowledge, and his weaponry, historical truth.
He agreed with the other early multiculturalists, like W.E.B. Du Bois, Theodor Herzel, and Randolph Bourne who believed that modern America should embrace the cultural differences that its citizens, and their immigrant ancestors, brought to America from their lands of origin. These individuals knew that America was not a carbon copy of England, but rather a conglomerate of infusions from all corners of the globe. The democracy of America, they believed, not only required tolerance of these cultural differences and could withstand and sustain the differences of its people, but democracy itself would flourish and be strengthened as a result of its cultural diversity.
To begin accomplishing his task, in 1915, Dr. Carter G. Woodson established the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History in Chicago, Illinois, at the Walbash Y.M.C.A. Now headquartered in Washington D.C., the Association sets the annual theme for Black History Month, publishes the Journal of African American History, and supports the study of African American history in homes, schools, colleges, churches, organizations, businesses, and government throughout the year.
Dr. Woodson devoted his life to historical research, and to preserving the history of African Americans, whose contributions, he noted, "were overlooked, ignored, and even suppressed by the writers of history textbooks and the teachers who use them." Race prejudice, he concluded, "is merely the logical result of tradition, the inevitable outcome of thorough instruction to the effect that the Negro has never contributed anything to the progress of mankind."
Dr. Woodson also wrote several books, the most famous of which might be The Mis-Education of the Negro. In this book, he examines the weakness of Euro-centric based curriculum. He shows how education that fails to include African American history and culture is a systematic mis-education of African American students. Dr. Woodson helps readers to understand that such an education fails to prepare black studens for success and to give them adequate sense of who they are within the system that they will live. Through this book, he offers realistic solutions to the problems.
Dr. Woodson provided us with other scholarly books, including The Education of the Negro Prior to 1861: A History of the Education of the Colored People of the United States from the Beginning of Slavery to the Civil War (1915), A Century of Negro Migration (1918), The history of the Negro church (A Woodson classic) (1927), and The Negro in Our History, revised by Charles H. Wesley after Woodson's death in 1950.
In 1926, eleven years after establishing the ASALH, Dr. Woodson single-handedly pioneered the celebration of "Negro History Week", for the second week in February, in order to coincide with the birthday celebrations for Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. The week was later extended to become Black History Month to the entire month of February.
I don't think that Dr. Woodson would be too terribly upset that celebrities and politicians have sought to increase their own reputations through Black History Month - as long as the rest of us can alway remember what the real purpose of Black History Month really is.
Dr. Woodson made sure that we have the information, resources and awareness that help both current and future generations of Americans to see that the recognition month of February is about celebrating history, increasing and building our history, and recognizing the importance of documenting history. It's not at all about fame, celebrity or politics. While Black History Month has been "recognized" by US presidents and state governors every year since it beginning in 1926, it is the legacy of Dr. Woodson and the continuing work of the many scholars and activists that have continued this dream of weaving a true American history.
Every year for 82 years, our nation has been enriched by the growing breadth and depth of documented history of black America. For a people who began celebrating our own unique history just 82 years ago, it's no surprise that we've only scratched the surface. Of course, we have so much more history yet to be documented. Thanks to Dr. Woodson, having a Black History Month each year ensures that we will continue to build and examine that history.
For example, one television series that I've been watching this month on my PBS channel is African American Lives 2 with Dr. Skip Gates. In this wonderful series, Professor Gates offers research, scholarship and science as tools in helping modern day African Americans to learn more about their family history and genealogy. He even uses DNA to establish ties to individual countries and even tribes in Africa. In that TV series, it's been incredible to witness how knowledge of genealogy and family history transforms individuals and their understanding of their place among others and their purpose on earth. Try to watch that series if you can. I think it shows on Wednesday evenings where I live.
Thank you, Dr. Woodson! You dedicated your life to something that continues to inform and enrich all Americans, of all skin colors. Our history belongs to all Americans now.
Thank you for leaving us with your special legacy. Dr. Woodson, the history month you started, the association you founded, and the books you wrote all remind us, year after year, of the continuing and pressing need to document and learn about our past.
Thank you for starting us on that road so many years ago.