February is Black History Month and every year when it rolls around, so many of us experience a complex mixture of emotions: pride, of course, in the long history of courage and accomplishment and pleasure in the opportunity to celebrate that—but also frustration and distress at the slow path of progress and the recurring and remaining inequities. Some believe there ought not be a separate month devoted to Black history because, as they say, “Black history is American history.” And so it is.
In that context, the history of Black History Month is quite ironic because its creator—a pioneering Harvard-trained historian named Carter Woodson—neither expected nor wanted it to last. A man born of slaves, Carter Woodson saw that the books he studied either ignored or distorted black history in the United States. His goal was to correct the racist bias implicit in the work of most white scholars at the time and to objectively write the black American experience into the history books. And so he created what he called “Negro History Week,” which he situated between the birthdays of Frederick Douglas and Abraham Lincoln. He was convinced that soon enough, black Americans and their history would enter the nation’s mainstream so that a special day, week or month would not be necessary.
And so here we are, 153 years since the Emancipation Proclamation, 53 years since Dr. King offered his great dream, 90 years since the establishment of Black History Month. In the era of “Black Lives Matter,” I cannot help but wonder what Carter Woodson would think today. His “week” was expanded into a month by President Ford in 1976—the year of the country’s bicentennial—and indeed, we do use the occasion to pay tribute to the generations who sacrificed so much in the name of freedom, and to celebrate the vast range and scope of black accomplishment in our history. But clearly it has been a far longer journey than Carter Woodson envisioned all those years ago. As President Obama reminded us not that long ago, “…this dream of equality and fairness has never come easily.” Indeed, in this era of “Black Lives Matter,” of continuing injustices and disparities, it seems to me that it is important to know our history so that we have a context for reflecting on today’s events. And if marking a time on our calendar acts as a prompt to do so, then perhaps, even 90 years later, Black History Month is still doing its job—it matters.
Images from the Library of Congress