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The History Behind the Month

By Kevin Robinson in Miscellaneous on Feb 5, 2007 3:30PM

2007_2_history2.jpgIn the US, February marks Black History Month, and while there are no shortage of opportunities to learn about important and significant people of African descent this month, the purpose and history behind the event is sometimes lost. While Africans have been present in North America at least since colonial times, black history had barely begun to be studied — or even documented — when the tradition formally began in 1926. It wasn't until later in the 20th Century when their contributions to our society began to be recognized and celebrated in the popular culture. One of the early people to get active in the movement for recognition of women and people of color, Mary Church Terrell, first began honoring the legacy of Fredrick Douglass on his birthday, February 14, in 1900. Professor Carter G. Woodson took the practice a step further, working to establish Negro History Week in 1926. In 1976 it was expanded to an entire month. Dr. Woodson was active in academia, founding The Association for the Study of Negro Life and History in Chicago in 1915, and he established the Associated Publishers in 1920, the oldest African American publishing company in the United States. This association and its work paved the way for publication of important scholarly works concerning blacks at a time when such subject matter was not considered important by many publishers. You can see a partial bibliography of his works here.

Many of us remember Black History Month from our primary educational experience: February is used by many schools as a chance to explore the history of important and significant leaders and events in the civil rights and abolition movements, as well as personalities that broke down barriers. It's not uncommon for school children to hear about Fredrick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, Eli Whitney and George Washington Carver, W.E.B. DuBois and Martin Luther King, Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali. But other events and people are sometimes not discussed, such as Nat Turner or Dred Scott during slavery, the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment or the Million Man March, or more recently Malcom X and the Nation of Islam, Harold Washington, Bobby Rush (the other one, too), or The Black Panther Party.

2007_2_history1.jpgOf course designating a specific month to the history of a group demarcated by their racial lineage and skin color doesn't come without controversy. Difficult questions about what it means to be black in America, what role and responsibility white people have in that history, and the usefulness and dignity of such an event are generally debated each year, as well. Chicago writer Salim Muwakkil, for example, argues eloquently for the importance of Black History Month, while Major W. Cox argues just as forcefully for an end to the institution. Lumping the history of people of color into one group raises other, more difficult questions. Where do other notable black people fit into Black History Month? Can we, as a culture and society, designate February as the time to learn about Mae Jemison? Condoleezza Rice? Can the children of generations of African diaspora simply be rolled up into the term "African American" and then conveniently studied once a year, lumping such different people as Crispus Attucks, Tiger Woods and Barack Obama together? What about people whose identity isn't easily classified, such as Bayard Rustin and Charles Pugh?

We'll leave the debate to the scholars and pundits, and to you, our informed and opinionated readers. Chicagoist prefers, instead, to leave you with this food for thought, a quote from actor Morgan Freeman, in an interview with 60 Minutes: "I don't want a black history month. Black history is American history."