There are some who view Black History Month as non-essential or even damaging to Black people. The most often heard criticism of Black History Month is a line we’ve all heard: “They gave us the shortest month of the year.”
Academy Award-winning actor Morgan Freeman came out against the entire notion of a Black History Month during a 2005 interview on “60 Minutes” with Mike Wallace, calling the month “ridiculous.”
“You’re going to relegate my history to a month?… I don’t want a Black History Month. Black history is American history,” said Freeman.
But a look into the history of Black History Month shows that these criticisms are not only misguided, they ignore the real mission and power behind its founding.
First off, why February? The organization founded by Dr. Carter G. Woodson, the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (known today as the Association for the Study of African American Life and History), sponsored the precursor to Black History Month, the inaugural national Negro History week in 1926. They (Woodson, co-founder Rev. Jesse E. Moorland and their cadre of Black scholars) purposely chose the second week in February as the date to honor the birthdays of two individuals considered heroes and leaders of importance to Black people—President Abraham Lincoln (Feb. 12) and icon Frederick Douglass (Feb. 14).
So, it wasn’t about February being the shortest month. And it damn sure wasn’t about something anyone “gave us.”
Negro History Week and its later iteration, Black History Month, are both examples of self-determination—Black people claiming their own space and their own observances/holidays for their own purposes.
Woodson didn’t sit around waiting for anybody’s permission to establish a vehicle to honor “Our Story.” He didn’t petition elected officials or apply for government grants. He and his organization did that thang of their own volition.
And though President Gerald Ford is given credit for establishing Black History Month as a national commemoration in 1976, he was merely putting a white stamp on something that was already a Black thang.
Because during the 1960s, Black college students (and countless community-based progressive Black organizations) took it upon themselves to expand Negro History Week into a month-long celebration. They also replaced the “Negro” with “Black.” So, again, that was us doing what we damn well pleased, not waiting, hat-in-hand for some campus administrator or local/national lawmaker to bestow their stamp of approval.
Freeman told Wallace during that 2005 interview that a Black History Month was not needed because Black history was/is American history. But Woodson created the foundations for Black History Month exactly because Black history was not part of American history.
I get what Freeman is saying, because it’s true. There is no American history devoid of Black history. But that’s not how American history has been taught, from Woodson’s day until now. “Our Story” has been absent from the pages of American history, absent from the documentaries and TV programs about American history and absent from the ivory tower discussions and cutting-edge intellectual conferences on American history (and world history, for that matter). And that absence was (and still is) very intentional.
Woodson, recognizing that this absence led to extremely dangerous potential outcomes for Black people, was just as intentional about moving to insert our history, accomplishments and striving into the history books for all to see.
REASONS BEHIND IT ALL
Why was this push so important to Woodson? You have to remember that Woodson would eventually become the second Black person to graduate with a Ph.D. from Harvard, the place where the intellectual ideas that guided the nation’s political policies and actions were born.
While a student at that Ivy League campus, Woodson heard these top minds debating courses of action regarding all the big issues of the day for the nation. During Woodson’s tenure at Harvard, one of the most pressing issues for white Americans was dealing with what they called the “Race problem,” i.e. what to do with Blackfolk who were no longer enslaved but who were viewed as inherently inferior and lacking any redeeming worth and value to society.
We were viewed as a drain to America’s greatness; an impediment to America’s desire to be considered the world’s preeminent nation. Additionally, many whites saw Blacks workers as competition for employment and Black entrepreneurs (farmers, blacksmiths, shop owners, etc.) as unwelcomed competition for white-owned businesses.
SEND THEM BACK TO AFRICA
Thus, in the 1910s, when Woodson walked Harvard’s hallowed halls, he heard an old idea resurrected and gaining steam—literally putting Blackfolk on boats and sending them “back” to Africa (though in the 1910s, most Blacks were US-born).
The movement was so huge back in the late 1700s and deep into the 1800s that the American Colonization Society was born; an organization that think-tanked, strategized and raised big money to make this plan happen. Many whites and even some Blacks supported the idea, with Black supporters concluding that there was no future for Black people in racist-to-the-core America. And just to give you a feel for how pervasive and far-reaching this idea of shipping us back to Africa was, the American Colonization Society did not close its doors as an organization until 1964—less than 50 years ago.
Another idea considered to rid America of its “Race problem” was the notion of forced sterilization, a practice some states passed into law beginning in 1907. Thus, criminals, the mentally retarded and mentally ill (institutionalized), in several US states experienced “compulsory sterilization. According to “Genocide and the Geographical Imagination: Life and Death in Germany, China and Cambodia” by James Tyner, by 1945, roughly 70,000 Americans had been sterilized in these programs. And most of them were Black, regardless of if they had no criminal record, mental retardation or mental illness.
THE FINAL SOLUTION
The final solution sounded more like Nazi Germany’s “final solution” for the Jews—extermination.
Historian and presiding bishop of the Pan African Orthodox Christian Church contends Woodson created Negro History Week (Black History Month) to literally save Black people from such an outcome.
“Woodson said, ‘If a race has no history, has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world and stands in danger of being exterminated,’” shared Nelson. “Dr. Woodson explained this time and again, and to this day, ‘Negroes’ in America have no idea how seriously extermination was considered as a permanent solution to the Negro problem in the minds of the country’s leading intellectuals.”
Kimathi argues Woodson’s other reason for creating the commemoration was to give young Black minds a chance at life.
“Woodson realized that a profoundly racist America was generating a great deal of inaccurate and insulting negative stereotypes of Black people, and then passing them on as science. So, as an educator, he saw that this propaganda campaign was not only being used to justify the oppression of Black people, but also to destroy the aspirations of young Black people by destroying their minds,” said Nelson.
Nelson says that in Woodson’s classic book, “The Mis-education of the Negro,” written in 1933, the scholar described this process of the deliberate mental destruction of Black people.
“Woodson also believed that this process of mental destruction was being used to devalue Black people in the eyes of the world, so that our suffering and cries for justice would fall on deaf ears. So, Woodson had an epiphany. He decided that it was his calling from God to write Black people back into history,” said Nelson.
However, taking up such a task was way more than any one person could handle. Thus, the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History was born in 1915 on the campus of Howard University.
“This group became the first group that started collecting knowledge about Black people and putting it in books. Woodson looked for evidence like a detective, and went through history books, literature, everything alluding to anything Black, and then traced its roots back so that, like a detective, he could put together the pieces and understand what was being referred to that had been deliberately erased. He could find out a myth, a mention of Carthage, a mention of Egypt, a mention of some historical fact that was prominent in European history, but they didn’t explain the source of it. He went back and traced all those things together and began to knit a history back together,” added Nelson.
But Woodson didn’t stop there. In 1916, at the urging of educators around the country, he established the “Journal of Negro History” and began the process of reconstructing Black history. Literally.
“He identified those persons and events worthy of being considered historically significant and began to painstakingly tell their story,” shared Nelson.
Woodson, inspired by arguably the preeminent race leader of the 1920s, Marcus Garvey, became a regular contributor to Garvey’s newspaper, “The Negro World,” sharing columns on Black history regularly. It was during this time, and in this context that Woodson, in 1926, established Negro History Week.
And it’s safe to say that Woodson never intended to confine his people’s history to one week.
“What he was trying to do was get a foothold in the culture where everybody, for at least one week, focused on the accomplishments and contributions of Black people. He didn’t do it just so they would know the history. He did it to protect us, to keep us from extermination, from being dealt with off-hand. His mission was to protect us and felt that if for a week people could appreciate what we brought to the table, we would be safer,” stated Nelson.
NOW MORE THAN EVER
Many, like Nelson, argue it’s not hyperbole to assert that Woodson almost single handedly resurrected Black history.
“He taught and inspired a new generation of Black historians. And they could have continued to uncover Black people’s history to this very day. Carter G. Woodson was a man on the mission,” said Nelson. “He died in 1950. He sacrificed his life, his talent and his money to uncover Black history and make it available to Black people. He never got married. He had no children, but claimed that his wife was Black history, and his offspring were those Black children whose minds he freed.”
Lord, have mercy. If we can’t get with that, especially with an already white-washed school curriculum being made even more lily-white via the criminalization of “Critical Race Theory” (i.e. any and all Black history, Black thought, Black social commentary, Black literature, Black scholarship, Black collegiate intellectual strivings, etc.), then we’re in worse shape than I thought.
Because in these days and times, we need Black History Month now more than ever.