Why Black History Month?

The idea was first envisioned by a man recognized as “The Father of Negro History” – Carter G. Woodson.

Woodson, whose best known book “The Miseducation of the Negro,” was born in 1875 in Buckingham County, Virginia. The son of former slaves, he worked in mines and quarries until the age of 20 when he decided that his mind would be a terrible thing to waste – long before the sentiment became a slogan for the United Negro College Fund.

Woodson received his high school diploma at the age of 22 and went on to get a master’s degree in history from the University of Chicago. In 1912, Woodson received a doctorate in history from Harvard.

Unable to land a teaching post at the elite university because Harvard wasn’t hiring black professors, Woodson went to teach at one of the nation’s leading black colleges, Howard University.

In 1915, Woodson became the director of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. A year later he was named editor of the association’s scholarly quarterly, “The Journal of Negro History.”

Woodson believed the study of black history, using the tools of scholarly research and writing, could serve a dual purpose. It could be used to counter white racial chauvinism, which was used to rationalize the oppression of black people in America.

The distortions and deletions in the American historical record as it pertains to race matters, Woodson believed, was detrimental to the health of a nation whose inherent promise is life, liberty and justice for all.

Perhaps more importantly, Woodson knew that in a society where black intelligence and moral worth is incessantly demeaned and devalued, studying black history would serve as a psychological defense shield for black students against the assaults of white supremacy.

So he embarked on a quest to establish a national celebration of black heritage. In 1926, Negro History Week was born.

“Besides building self-esteem among blacks, (Black History Week) would help eliminate prejudice among whites,” Woodson concluded.

It wasn’t until after the civil rights movement of the 1960s that Black History Week was taken seriously outside of the educated black community and expanded into Black History Month.

February was chosen as Black History Month because the birthdays of the esteemed black abolitionist Frederick Douglass and the celebrated black poet Langston Hughes fall during that month. It’s also the month the NAACP was founded. It just so happens that February is the shortest and one of the coldest months of the year.

So how come there is no official White History Month? In the words of a Tulane University Black History Month Web site, “a White History Month is not needed because the contributions of whites are already acknowledged by society. Black History Month is meant to remedy this inequity of representation.”

Of course, if standard U.S. history curriculum did a better job of teaching both the tragic and triumphant aspects of the expansion of democratic freedoms on this continent and its inextricable link to Americans of black African descent, then a Black History Month would be wholly unnecessary.

But when educated Americans at the dawn of the 21st century make statements like: My grandparents were immigrants who faced discrimination and made it. Why can’t blacks? All societies had slaves. Besides, some blacks were sold into slavery by black Africans – it’s clear to anyone familiar with the history of white-skin privilege in America that Black History Month has not outlived its usefulness.

This isn’t to deny the importance of individual initiative or to lay a guilt-trip on white brothers and sisters for every failure in the black community. On the other hand, black social mobility, (or lack thereof) cannot be understood without understanding the devastating impact of not only two centuries of slavery but a hundred years of organized, state-supported attacks on “free” black communities after slavery.

For sure, there have been many blacks who have overcome the odds, which is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit. But those blacks who have “succeeded” did so in spite of white-skin privilege; not because of it.

Instead of asking why can’t blacks make it – a grossly imprecise question that ignores the significant achievements of thousands of African-Americans – we’d do better to ask: what obstacles have impeded the economic, political and social development of many black Americans? To candidly answer that complex question, the study of black history is inescapable.

Looking for Blues Clues

So for starters, maybe we should all listen to Billie sing the blues sometime over the next few weeks in honor of Black History Month, paying particular attention to Holiday’s poignant musical portrait “Strange Fruit.”

In that song, the great American vocalist memorializes the black men, women and children who hung from poplar trees during a century-long reign of racial terror that be-gan after slavery ended and continued until the civil rights movement changed the cultural paradigm in America only a generation ago.

Since the day “everything” changed, if I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard the phrase, or seen a sign, declaring “United We Stand,” I’d have enough money to buy a mint-condition, limited-edition Billie Holiday album.

Not that unity or Billie Holiday records are a bad thing. It’s just that, like peace, unity is an ideal that everyone is for, but when talk turns to the historic struggle for social justice in America, the self-congratulatory feel-good facade covering public debate crumbles, unveiling the deep ideological disagreements that still divide this great nation.

Try starting a conversation at a cocktail party about reparations for black America or the withdrawal of the U.S. delegation from the U.N. Conference on Racism just before Sept. 11 and you’ll see what I mean.

Discussion about these things is useless without knowledge of a bit of black history, which, in this case, means a bit of politically incorrect American history.

Consider the notorious 1921 Tulsa, Okla., riot, when a thousand or so white Tulsans invaded, burned and looted the black Greenwood section of Tulsa, leaving about 50 whites and an estimated 150 to 200 blacks dead in their wake?

No reparations were ever paid. No one was ever convicted for the murders, larceny or arson.

Gunnar Mydral, author of the seminal 1944 study on race relations, “An American Dilemma,” opposed the term “riots” to describe these attacks on black communities. He preferred to call it a “terrorization or massacre, and (considered) it a magnified, or mass, lynching.”

Of course, the 1921 Tulsa riot was not an isolated event. There were similar racial attacks in Wilmington, N.C., in 1898, Atlanta in 1906, Springfield, Ill., in 1908, East St. Louis in 1917, Chicago in 1919 and Detroit in 1943.

And we haven’t even begun to consider the history of lynching in post-Reconstruction America – a mostly Southern pastime that claimed the lives of nearly 5,000 blacks between 1882 and 1968. That’s an average of one lynching per week.

The rationale provided by apologists of this heinous act, in which participants were known to mutilate their victims and keep body parts for souvenirs, was that outlaw blacks needed to be controlled for the safety of whites.

The Tuskegee Institute, whose estimates are considered conservative by historians, is one of three sources for statistics on lynching. In addition to keeping track of lynching victims, Tuskegee documented the accusations used to justify lynching.

Contrary to the racist myth of black men’s uncontrollable desire to rape white women, the majority of lynchings were for other alleged “crimes.”

According to Tuskegee records, 41 percent of black lynchings were for alleged feloni-ous assault; 19.2 percent for alleged rape; 6.1 percent for alleged attempted rape; 4.9 per-cent for alleged theft; 1.8 percent for alleged insults to white people; 22.7 percent for mis-cellaneous offenses; and 1.5 percent for no offense at all.

A. Arthur Raper, author of “The Tragedy of Lynching,” found that about one-third of lynching victims were falsely accused and that, occasionally, an unlucky black was lynched in a case of mistaken identity.

How can there be a candid, inter-racial discussion about reparations if this dark side of American history is ignored, as the conservative scholar Thomas Sowell implies? Sowell argues that calls for reparations is essentially about “race hustlers” trying to morally blackmail Americans who immigrated to this country after slavery.

The case for reparations is not solely based on two centuries of slave labor that gave America such a strong economic start but is further buttressed by the recognition of a violent system of political repression and economic deprivation used to control the emergence of “free” blacks in America.

We can fund a Marshall Plan to help European countries rebuild in the wake of Nazi aggression, but we can’t muster the national will to put together an Urban Marshall Plan for poor black communities to rebuild in the wake of violent oppression that went virtually unchecked for a century after the Civil War?

Black History Month is needed, not only as a foundation for the rootless, but as a serum for the historical amnesia that inflicts us all from time to time.

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