Every February 1st, it happens like clockwork. Folks complain. On Twitter and Facebook, in idle chatter before meetings and around the water cooler someone wonders aloud why there has to be Black History Month.
People write letters to editors decrying that they have to explain to their children why there is no “White History Month.” Then, they insist that if the idea of white history month is racist, then black history month must be racist too. Many of these conversations do not end well.
As a historian of African-American history I could get upset at these comments. I could suggest that they survive the middle passage, endure intergenerational slavery, fight for emancipation, and start their own history organization in the midst of Jim Crow segregation. Then they can honor their own history makers who were ignored by mainstream history books. They can follow that up by getting to work planning annual conferences to encourage more research and unearth new generations of scholars. Then if they can keep that tradition alive for almost a hundred years they’ll be able to pick a month to celebrate that history to remember what’s been accomplished and reflect on what more needs to be done.
But I don’t.
When I’m asked about Black History Month, I usually tell them about its founder, Carter G. Woodson. Woodson, the second African-American to graduate with a Ph.D. in history from Harvard University, believed that African-Americans had to understand their own history in order to effectively contest segregation and disfranchisement.
Inspired by the semi-centennial celebration of the general emancipation, Woodson founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (now the Association for the Study of African American Life and History) in 1915. Woodson’s organization hosts annual conferences where researchers can share their new findings. In order to share historical discoveries with the public at large, Woodson began to promote the celebration of Negro History Week in 1926. Choosing February to coincide with the celebration of the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, Negro History Week was Woodson’s attempt to make sure that black Americans knew about the range of important figures, movements, and events that had shaped African American’s march toward freedom.
Popular response to the celebration was immediate. Negro History Week allowed black schools, organizations, and churches a chance to expand their knowledge about black activists, writers, artists, and the movements that defined their history. Over time these celebrations grew to be month-long affairs in many communities, officially becoming Black History Month in 1976.
And I sometimes wonder what Woodson would think about the commercialization of the celebration today. For some Black History Month is just one long game of Trivial Pursuit or a chance to sell history themed T-shirts and calendars. The trivia version of black history month allows you to purchase posters and shirts that feature the image of Sojourner Truth alongside a picture of Michael Jordan, but it doesn’t require you to really know anything about either of them.
At its best history should require us to rethink the things we think we know. Instead of plugging in the names of great black men and women, this history should challenge us. It should explore the ways that ordinary people helped to shape their world. Good history reshapes assumptions. It forces us to learn from past failures, reassess our achievements, and re-imagine what is possible. Critical engagement with history helps unflatten all the “great” figures our past, and helps us understand more about the journey of the nation. Like Woodson, I believe that a broad understanding of black history can help to create a broad understanding of American history as a whole.
So to all those who might complain about the celebrations this February, I would remind them that black history month is not a requirement. They can just opt out of thinking about history at all this month. But for me its an honor to stand on the shoulders of those who accomplished so much. Their work has enriched us all.
And if anyone wants to create a history celebration of their own, its fine. I’m happy anytime history breaks into the national conversation. But in the spirit of Woodson please be sure not to complain, just get to work.
Blair L. M. Kelley is an associate professor at North Carolina State University. Follow her on Twitter at @ProfBLMKelley