Friday, February 24, 2012
The Father of Black History
Carter G. Woodson, born in Virginia, graduate of the University of Chicago, is an exact specimen of the diaspora movements described in Gregory’s The Southern Diaspora. It was in Chicago, 1915 that Woodson began the “Association for the Study of Negro Life and History” (1) and later “Negro History Week,” which eventually became African American History Month. (Quick fact: he was a regular columnist for Garvey’s Negro World!)
With his studies and promotion of history, Woodson contributed very much to the idea of a culturally-cohering “black metropolis.” In his book The Mis-Education of the Negro he says that, “The Negro can be made proud of his past only by approaching it scientifically himself and giving his own story to the world. What others have written about the Negro during the last three centuries has been mainly for the purpose of bringing him where he is today and holding him there.” (2) Thus, he talks about the importance of telling your own individual story and on insisting on your own place in history, an idea we've also developed from readings.
Additionally, like The Haymarket Strike with the Haymarket Square Monument, education about history gave blacks a place of unity, a place of pride, and a place of recognition. Woodson said, "Besides building self-esteem among blacks, Negro History Week would help eliminate prejudice among whites." (3) The two go together, as intensive coverage of black celebrities, sports, and music in papers like the Defender showed us.
Plans for a National Historic Site in honor of Woodson are in effect right now and it would be interesting to compare its features to the Haymarket Monument, though it will concentrate on museology rather than symbolic imagery. (4)
Today, African American History Month continues to exist, and although it words its goals with Woodson’s ideas—“truth could not be denied and that reason would prevail over prejudice” when “the entire nation had come to recognize the importance of Black history in the drama of the American story” (5)—there is much criticism of the concept. Morgan Freeman has said, “I don’t want a black history month. Black history is American history.” (6) Interestingly, that was the precise reason Woodson wanted a black history week. How has what was meant to be a celebration of existence become belittling rather than empowering? Certainly, black history deserves more than a month. I think the question is, more precisely, do we still need a yearly reminder that black history does deserve recognition as American History or is the special treatment demeaning and self-undermining in that it labels black history as something separate from regular American History?