As we approach the second half of the decade of the 21st century, some voices among our people have raised the issue of the relevance and need for African American History Month, reasoning that we are all Americans. Put aside for the moment the question of what is an American and what is American citizenship, the necessity of African American History Month is grounded in our exclusion from American history. Thus, African American History Month is an acknowledgement of our omission and a corrective for the exclusion, distortion, and marginalization of African Americans in the history of America.
So, first, a history lesson on the origins of African American History Month. The precursor to African American History Month was created in 1926 in the United States, when historian Carter G. Woodson and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History announced the second week of February to be “Negro History Week.”Woodson chose February for reasons of tradition and reform. 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. More importantly, he chose them for reasons of tradition. Since Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, the black community, along with other Republicans, had been celebrating the fallen President’s birthday. And since the late 1890s, black communities across the country had been celebrating Douglass’. Well aware of the pre-existing celebrations, Woodson built Negro History Week around traditional days of commemorating the black past. He was asking the public to extend their study of black history, not to create a new tradition.
To be sure, Woodson was up to something more than building on tradition. Without saying so, he aimed to reform it from the study of two great men to a great race. Though he admired both men, Woodson had never been fond of the celebrations held in their honor. He railed against the “ignorant spellbinders” who addressed large, convivial gatherings and displayed their lack of knowledge about the men and their contributions to history. More importantly, Woodson believed that history was made by the people, not simply or primarily by great men. He envisioned the study and celebration of the African Americans as a race, not simply as the producers of a great man. And Lincoln, however great, had not freed African Americans—the Union Army, including hundreds of thousands of black soldiers and sailors, had done that. Rather than focusing on two men, the black community, he believed, should focus on the countless black men and women who had contributed to the advance of human civilization.
The 1960s had a dramatic effect on the study and celebration of black history. Before the decade was over, Negro History Week would be well on its way to becoming Black History Month. The shift to a month-long celebration began even before Dr. Woodson death. As early as 1940s, blacks in West Virginia, a state where Woodson often spoke, began to celebrate February as Negro History Month. Since the mid-1970s, every American president, Democrat and Republican, has issued proclamations endorsing the Association’s annual theme.
Hence, this is against background and history which has given rise to African American History Month. It is recognition that as a people, we have contributed something special to the world. The great education Mary McLeod Bethune at the end of her life said to us: “I want , must recognize that we the custodians as well as the heirs of a great civilization. We have given something to the world as a race and for this we are proud and fully conscious of our place in the total picture of mankind’s development.” African American History Month honors Bethune by celebrating our contribution to humanity.
Inasmuch as the larger society remains uneducated about the contributions of African Americans , the celebration of this month services a vital function for ourselves and the larger society. We have made significant contributions in all of the domains American life- science, literature, and social struggle, just to name a few. Our struggle to free ourselves was and remains a contribution to make America a more “perfect union.” People across the world have drawn inspiration and instructions from our struggle, which has become a beacon of light for those seeking freedom and an elevated human society.
Let us then put to rest that our celebration of African American History Month separates and divides us. Our American identity is still evolving and is unsettle. Yes, we are American, but a particular kind of American- Africans in America. American “Exceptionalism may very well be the recognition of Booker T Washington prophetic observation that “we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand.”