Black History Month in the Service of American History
The opponents of Black History Month have launched their annual offensive. As always, the crux of their argument is that the celebrations are divisive and America needs one history. Their morale is high, for they believe that Obama’s presidency has created an opening.
Increasingly, these reformers are well meaning and stake out a different position from the old opponents who denied that African Americans had a history worth hearing. With more than a few African Americans in their ranks, including prominent journalists such as Cynthia Tucker and Rochelle Riley, they are now a diverse army in search of an all-inclusive national narrative. Some are mono-culturalists others are multiculturalists, but they all want to end Black History Month.
The problem, however, is that these agents of reform care nothing about tradition. In the name of unity, they want to bring an end to our country’s most venerable celebration of history. The cultural loss from ending our eighty-three year tradition would be astounding, leaving America bereft of virtually any viable celebration of our past.
When Carter G. Woodson announced scheduled the first Negro History Week for 1926, he built his cultural movement on a substantial historical foundation. He selected Abraham Lincoln’s and Frederick Douglass’ birthdays, February 11th and 14th respectively, because for over a generation black Americans had been celebrating both. Before the Republicans in Congress used the centennial of Lincoln ’s birth to get reluctant Southern Democrats on board, black and white Republicans annually honored the birth of their most esteemed leader. As for Douglass’s birthday, his widow convinced black club women to honor Douglass with an annual celebration. By 1925, all Woodson had to do was circle the week surrounding those celebrations to create an expanded celebration. In less than a decade, Lincoln and Douglass celebrations waned as blacks started celebrating the history of a people, a race, and the progressive forces for racial change.
Far from being divisive, black history celebrations have been a force uniting Americans. One of Woodson’s explicit goals was to improve race relations. In the mid-1920s, the Ku Klux Klan was alive and well on the American landscape and the ideology of black inferiority thwarted racial progress. In a fight against falsehoods, Woodson reached out not simply to black Americans, but to all Americans of good will who believed America should be a racial democracy. Woodson delighted when mixed and all-white schools adopted Negro History Week to teach interracial tolerance. Not surprisingly, his disciples, including the venerable John Hope Franklin, urged that Negro history be taught in integrated schools. The civil rights activists took up the call, and Negro History Week and later Black History Month became a common experience for millions of American youth in our schools and colleges. In recent decades, the celebrations have entered our workplaces.
The success of the black history movement overwhelmed the effort to define February as American History Month. Yes my fellow Americans there was such a movement. In the late 1940s, the Daughters of the American Revolution, the grand organization that refused to allow the black opera singer Marion Anderson to sing in their hall, proclaimed February American History Month. Their lily white, old-line Protestant approach caught fire, and throughout the 1950s virtually all governors signed proclamations. In 1966, Lyndon Baines Johnson made it a national celebration, while rejecting calls for a Negro History Week proclamation. By the late 1960s, however, American History Month faded to the recesses of rural America.
The DAR’s American History Month failed for a number of reasons, not the least of them being that Americans, with notable exceptions, have little use for history. We often hear of anti-intellectualism in black life from untutored racial critics. Yet the historian Richard Hofstadter won a Pulitzer prize in history for his interpretation of America as anti-intellectual. Part of that critique rested on America ’s disregard for its own history. Every survey of what we Americans know of our history proves him right.
If most Americans have little use for history, African Americans do. In the 1920s, the historian Autro Alfonso Schomburg had it right: the Negro, he wrote, “must remake his past in order to make his future.” Black history celebrations affirm the worth of black Americans in a world that still too often denies them a place in the movement of civilization.
All Americans benefit from the African American thirst for history. It is through Black History Month celebrations that the American public learns something of slavery and freedom, the civil war and reconstruction, civil rights laws and movements, American poets and novelists, and the need to keep the dream of America alive. It took an African American president to revive the memory of Lincoln. Thanks to the black history movement, February remains American History Month.
(c) February 5, 2009.
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Daryl Michael Scott is Professor of History at Howard University and editor of Carter G. Woodson’s Appeal: The Lost Manuscript, 2008. Visit www.darylmichaelscott.com
Copyright Daryl Michael Scott