A time where discussions of diversity and inclusion dominate America’s cultural sphere, we celebrate Black History Month. Not just to remember the triumphs of a select few or the country’s progress in civil rights over the last 60 years, but to acknowledge a historical narrative that is uniquely black and undoubtedly American.
Harvard alum Dr. Carter G. Woodson is credited with originating Negro History Week in 1926, intentionally choosing the week between the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln to focus on the study of African-Americans. Woodson was just the second black man to earn a PhD from Harvard and believed that documenting the history and achievements of black people was essential in dispelling myths of inferiority and creating self-worth for African Americans.
“Race prejudice 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,” Woodson wrote in a 1926 issue of the Journal of Negro History.
For decades Woodson argued over the lack of acknowledgement of black people in American History overall, and it wasn’t until 25 years after his death in 1976 that President Gerald Ford recognized February as Black History Month nationally.
Where does black history begin? The transatlantic slave trade brought black people to the Caribbean and North America before these states were united, but with displaced Africans left unable to document their own histories, European colonists were able to dictate their own story and perception of the horrors of slavery. Both colonial histories and fiction from the time frequently cast Africans as savages in need of salvation or eager simpletons willing to labor for free.
Unfortunately the fight to maintain humanity and disprove inferiority is a recurring theme in black history, as African-Americans have been regularly cast as “the other” in an American society that centers the interests and values of white men. Over time the stories of peaceful plantations and the Heart of Darkness have changed to satisfy racist narratives around urbanization, class and public education. Left for generations without the tools to tell their own stories, black history is the means by which African-Americans can push back against those reductive portrayals.
Autobiographies and first hand accounts of those horrors from freed slaves like Frederick Douglass and Solomon Northup published during the 19th Century were vital in helping shift the American perception of slavery. Those personal stories established an alternative narrative for both free and enslaved people, placing the dignity and humanity of their black subjects at the center. The voices of slaves forcibly silenced in their transition to America found their strength in these historical accounts, contradicting the romanticized images of slavery in the south that persisted long past the Civil War.
As we talk about diversity, it’s important to remember that having a seat at the table is not the same as having a voice. Black History Month provides us with an opportunity to uplift and expand our knowledge of the black experience in America and can also serve as a lens to examine our shared American history.