The origins of Black History Month

Those who have no record of what their forebears have accomplished lose the inspiration which comes from the teaching of biography and history.” Carter G. Woodson, 1933

“America was built on the preferential treatment of white people—395 years of it. Vaguely endorsing a cuddly, feel-good diversity does very little to redress this.” —Ta-Nehisi Coates, 2014

My first experience with Black History Month was in 1971, at Washington Junior High School (WJHS), my neighborhood school, in Rock Island, IL. That year I was chosen as a school “ambassador” to spend a day in a different part of town, at Central Junior High. I realized that day that I was white, because most of the kids at Central were black. Even though my social studies teacher, Chuck Paradiso, included Black History month in the curriculum, we never talked about the historical origins of our racially segregated city. By the time I experienced it, Black History Month had become a celebration of famous people.

The Origins of Black History Month

When Carter Godwin Woodson proposed Negro History Week in 1926, he was aiming to correct two blinding wrongs: the absence of black people from in all aspects of the school curriculum, and the misrepresentation of black people in instances when they were present. As he wrote in 1933 in The Mis-Education of the Negro,

“No systematic effort toward change has been possible, for, taught the same economics, history, philosophy, literature and religion which have established the present code of morals, the Negro’s mind has been brought under the control of his oppressor. The problem of holding the Negro down, therefore, is easily solved. When you control a man’s thinking you do not have to worry about his actions. You do not have to tell him not to stand here or go yonder. He will find his “proper place” and will stay in it. You do not need to send him to the back door. He will go without being told. In fact, if there is no back door, he will cut one for his special benefit. His education makes it necessary.”

From Woodson’s perspective, the purpose of Negro History Week, situated between the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln in February, was political. As Woodson explained, “If you teach the Negro that he has accomplished as much good as any other race he will aspire to equality and justice without regard to race. Such an effort would upset the program of the oppressor in Africa and America. Play up before the Negro, then, his crimes and shortcomings. Let him learn to admire the Hebrew, the Greek, the Latin and the Teuton. Lead the Negro to detest the man of African blood–to hate himself.”

Black history will always haunt us

Black history doesn’t flatter American democracy, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in a June 2014 article for The Atlantic, nearly a century after Woodson founded what we now call Black History Month, and yet we cannot escape our past. Coates writes, “It is as though we have run up a credit-card bill and, having pledged to charge no more, remain befuddled that the balance does not disappear. The effects of that balance, interest accruing daily, are all around us.” Our history haunts us.

Black History Month cannot do the work Woodson intended it to do—to “free the Negro’s mind that has been brought under the control of his oppressor,” nor can it do the work Coates argues it needs to do, until we acknowledge our white supremacist origins. The roots of our economy and our democracy lie in the institution of slavery. As Coates puts it, “By erecting a slave society, America created the economic foundation for its great experiment in democracy.” Other historians agree, including, most recently, Edward E. Baptist, author of The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism.

Resist “patriotism a la carte”

Talking about slavery makes white people uncomfortable–“I didn’t do it.” But in his 2014 article, entitled “The Case for Reparations,” Coates rebuts that position and with it, all the widely accepted and expected gestures of patriotism—playing the national anthem at sporting events, waving the flag on the 4th of July. Coates writes:

“One cannot escape the question by hand-waving at the past, disavowing the acts of one’s ancestors, nor by citing a recent date of ancestral immigration. The last slaveholder has been dead for a very long time. The last soldier to endure Valley Forge has been dead much longer. To proudly claim the veteran and disown the slaveholder is patriotism à la carte. A nation outlives its generations. We were not there when Washington crossed the Delaware, but Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze’s rendering has meaning to us. We were not there when Woodrow Wilson took us into World War I, but we are still paying out the pensions. If Thom-as Jefferson’s genius matters, then so does his taking of Sally Hemings’ body. If George Washington crossing the Delaware matters, so must his ruthless pursuit of the runagate Oney Judge.”

In this month of Black History, let’s agree that we will not practice patriotism a la carte. Let’s celebrate the accomplishments of Black people, but let’s also reflect on the genesis of our country’s economy in the institution of slavery and the hypocrisy built into the founding principles of our democratic institutions which allowed it.

Emily Lardner lives and writes in Washington.

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