Today marks the start of Black History Month. National celebrations commence in February to honor the achievements of Black people and offer citizens historical reminders of the sacrifice and contributions of Black thought leaders. While REVOLT is dedicated to recognizing the accomplishments of Black women and men daily, it is necessary that we illuminate Black History Month’s purpose and how the American tradition came to be.
Firstly, the month-long observance encourages educators to veer away from curriculums that focus almost wholly on white figures’ deeds. Students of all racial backgrounds deserve to be represented in their education and alongside their professors. Beyond acknowledging the subjugation of slavery, modern academic lessons in February emphasize that a community’s strength is rooted in more than the pain its people have endured — it ascends through its joy. A man who aimed to promote the brilliance of Blackness was abolitionist, historian, and author Carter Godwin Woodson.
Born in 1875, the renowned scholar developed from humble beginnings and began his formal education at 20. In 1912, he became the second Black American to earn a doctorate from Harvard University following William Edward Burghardt Du Bois (best known as W.E.B. Du Bois). Woodson is also the only person of formerly enslaved parents to complete a Doctor of Philosophy degree in the United States. Having faced equity issues following the Reconstruction era, the pathfinder understood the need for Black Americans’ economic, political and social advancement. By 1915, Dr. Woodson founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH), presently known as the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH). He is credited as the “Father of Black History” worldwide.
The historical society is internationally renowned, and is the eldest and numerically largest of its kind stateside. Woodson’s four cofounding members ensured that Black stories were continually recorded past the centuries of colonial settlers pillaging Indigenous masses and stealing Africans from their birthplace. While the group registered the exploitive labor that became the bedrock of contemporary constructs in the Caribbean and United States, these instituting men aided Woodson’s investigative studies concerning the history of global Black populaces. Subsequently, in 1916 Brittanica’s archives confirmed “… Woodson edited the first issue of the association’s principal scholarly publication, The Journal of Negro History, which, under his direction, remained an important historical periodical for more than 30 years.”
Its pages were a precursor to many published works centered around Black culture. For example, The Harlem Renaissance included a multitude of progressive literary offerings. Enter: Opportunity: Journal of Negro Life, The Messenger and CANE by Jean Toomer. Alongside these strides, with the aid of Omega Psi Phi (Woodson’s fraternity), was the ASNLH’s 1926 memorandum, which stated the second week of February would be acknowledged as Negro History Week moving forward. “It is commonly said that Woodson selected February to encompass the birthdays of two great Americans who played a prominent role in shaping Black history, namely Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, whose birthdays are the 12th and the 14th, respectively,” noted the Zinn Education Project’s website.
Remembered as “the Great Emancipator,” our nation’s 16th president, Abraham Lincoln, was not an abolitionist. While he is heralded for the liberation of enslaved people, President Lincoln’s reasoning was grounded in his need to salvage the Union. Moreover, he was apprehensive about releasing approximately 4 million Black Americans into society. Upon being questioned by an antislavery postured editor, Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune, he responded as follows regarding the matter:
“If I could save the Union without freeing any slaves, I would do it — and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it — and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that,” as reanalyzed by Digital History’s 1862 annal.
Despite the administrator’s public sentiments, cliff notes on the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863 are commonly publicized from the National Archives. Conversely, the White House‘s website endorsed the former president with the directive that he “… declared forever free those slaves within the Confederacy in 1863.” In 1865, President Lincoln was assassinated at Ford’s Theatre in Washington.
The latter inspiration behind Woodson’s selected date for the ASNLH’s Negro History Week emergence was Frederick Douglass, a formerly enslaved man who became one of the most prominent civil rights personages of his time. Douglass, a distinguished educator, was first taught the alphabet at age 12 by his slaveholder’s wife before the slaveholder stopped them from working together. The youngster later expanded his education through lessons from local white children — who were poor — in exchange for bread. His childhood narrative was nuanced as Douglass was of a mixed-race bloodline and lost his mother before he reached 10 years old. It is unclear to the Library of Congress’ essays whether or not his enslaved Indigenous mother’s owner was his biological father, but History identifies Douglass’ father as European and African.
Upon being transitioned to a new family property, his love for literature led him to teach other enslaved people. Douglass issued lessons through a church service, during which he shared the New Testament on the plantation where he dwelled. As recorded in his biography, a Black congregation of nearly 40 attended with the landowner’s blessing, prior to outside white residents ending the mass’ time of worship. He would be sent to numerous locations ahead of escaping to freedom in New York City, with the assistance of Anna Murray, who would later become his wife.
During his lifetime, Douglass joined the American Anti-Slavery Society, became an esteemed abolitionist leader, authored multiple books, evolved as one of the first Black U.S. marshals, advised presidents, published newspapers and more. His death in 1895 left a profound mark on Woodson’s human rights workings and separate ASNLH events. In his book, “The Mis-Education of the Negro” the doctor wrote, “If a race has no history, if 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 sentiment invigorated Black movements for generations to come.
According to The Association for the Study of African American Life and History’s Origins of Black History Month section, “Negro History Week appeared across the country in schools… the 1920s was the decade of the New Negro, a name given to the Post-War I generation because of its rising racial pride and consciousness… [the] ASNLH formed branches that stretched from coast to coast. By the 1930s, Woodson complained about the intellectual charlatans… popping up everywhere seeking to take advantage of the public interest in Black history. He warned teachers not to invite speakers who had less knowledge than the students… In America, nothing popular escapes either commercialization or eventual trivialization… He pressed for schools to use Negro History Week to demonstrate what students learned all year [about Black history].” This was ahead of his passing from a heart attack in 1950.
By 1954, the Supreme Court case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka permanently altered the course of schooling syllabi, as racial segregation of children in public schools was unanimously ruled unconstitutional. Simultaneously, the fight for progress via the civil rights movement brought activism from intellectuals who contested prejudices against Black and POC communities. The rising epoch of notables included, but was not limited to, the viewpoints of advocates Harry Belafonte, Jo Ann Robinson, Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, Jesse Jackson, Dorothy Height, Stokely Carmichael, and Fannie Lou Hamer.
The initial week-long event aided a grander call-to-action against the violence and injustice Black people were navigating. Upon the conservative era under President Nixon ending with his resignation following the Watergate scandal, America was overdue for some policy change. “I assume the Presidency under extraordinary circumstances… this is an hour of history that troubles our minds and hurts our hearts,” logged the presidency page of Gerald R. Ford. Within the 14 months he served the United States, President Ford vetoed a total of 39 measures. Still, one of his public service moments arguably outshined all others.
While in office, he discovered Negro History Week had reached its national bicentennial anniversary. In 1976, President Ford nudged citizens to “… seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history,” as logged by the Black History Month governmental forum. February has commenced a month-long testimonial to Black excellence in America ever since. Black History Month has inspired the world and is memorialized by neighboring territories like Canada and overseas in the United Kingdom, Ireland, Germany, and the Netherlands.
The cultural distinction of Blackness, while necessary, was not created to imply that persons of outside racial backgrounds should not acknowledge and honor the contributions of Black people globally. This year, our nation’s annual theme is “Black Health and Wellness.” The United States Census Bureau’s last population estimate verified that Black Americans represent 13.4% of the general population. Nearby this given percentile are Black Latinxs, who roughly encompass 5% of the demographic, as per the Pew Research Center’s Facts About the U.S. Black Population report. Moreover, within the Black American population, Black Latinxs have had the most significant growth over the past decade, tallying a 145% expansion rate.
Behind those indicators are those of multiracial (non-Latinx) Black households who embody approximately 3.7 million people. America’s vice president, Kamala Harris, is of this specified demographic. Additionally, she is the first part-Black, part-South Asian-American, and female vice president to take office. As nationals prepare for 2022’s Black History Month festivities, it is beneficial to reflect upon Vice President Harris’ articulated beliefs. In 2021, while delivering a speech at the 40th Annual Black History Month Virtual Celebration, she was quoted by the United Press International directly:
“We celebrate Black History Month in January, in March, in April, and all year round. But, yes, every February, we take… a more formal time, to remember and honor those who came before us… they are and were the visionaries.”