Black History Month grew out of annual celebrations of Black progress and excellence since the end of slavery in 1865. Dr. Carter G. Woodson observed the thousands of Black Americans that traveled to Illinois to rejoice over the multitude of accomplishments among the Black community. Dr. Woodson, along with four other Black community leaders, started the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (currently the Association for African American Life and History).
In 1916, Dr. Woodson began publishing the Journal of Negro History. Beginning in 1920, he urged civic and fraternal organizations to promote the achievements listed in the journal. In 1926, he published a press release announcing Negro History Week. The celebrations grew and national organizations and media began to participate. 50 years later, after the Black is Beautiful and Black Power movements saw Black Americans embracing the Black identity and history, the Association declared Black History Month. President Ford issued a Message on the Observance and we’ve been rolling ever since.
It’s 2020. We’re still celebrating Black History Month. Every year there is a theme. This year, it’s African Americans and the Vote. 155 years after the 13th Amendment, despite individual progress and apparent freedom, Black Americans are still largely underrepresented in civic action. In the area of wealth and education, Black Americans still lag behind but are overrepresented in poverty and incarceration.
Dr. Woodson would say it’s due to mis-education. We agree. We still have Black History Month because we’re still using essentially the same curriculum and education we have since the 19th century. True, it’s been edited to recognize slavery as wrong (most of the time) and talk about pre-slavery history (one unit). But really, American education continues to treat the Black American story as separate. Instead of consistently learning about America’s racial caste system, the historical oppression, and exploitation of people of color and anyone deemed non-white, White Americans and Europeans are held up as adventurous, brave, and patriotic freedom fighters. (There are adventurous, brave, and patriotic White and European Americans in history but we don’t teach about abolitionists either).
People of color are a footnote.
And thus, systemic oppression is maintained. Most Americans, including Black Americans, hold a low opinion of the Black community. Those who do well are seen as exceptions instead of the standard. Media focuses on and promotes negativity and poverty, as if it is the exclusive domain of Black Americans. And most people buy in.
So the next time you wonder why we are still grappling with racism, why our country is so divided, why Black Americans continue to struggle as a group – consider why we still need Black History Month.