When author and history professor Carter G. Woodson created what would become Black History Month in February 1926, America’s black citizens were on the outside looking in, spectators to the great American drama, subjected to a repression of aspiration and identity so severe that it amounted to domestic apartheid.
Lynchings were so common that the NAACP kept a flag at its New York offices to announce that “A Man Was Lynched Yesterday.” The flag flew often.
The Great Migration was well underway. Black citizens moved from the southern states to the North and Midwest by the millions, and African-American voting was suppressed, sometimes violently, especially in the Jim Crow South. Woodson, grasping the enormity of the situation, created “Negro History Week” as a way of highlighting the social contributions of black Americans.
When Barack Obama took the oath of office to become the 44th president of the United States on Jan. 20, he did so as the beneficiary of the broadest, most sweeping black vote in American history. Since 1976, February has been officially designated as Black History Month, but the inauguration of the nation’s first black president underscored just how much the climate that produced Woodson’s noble idea had changed. Some say the need for Black History Month has ended altogether.
Black History Month has become more or less a reflex in American life, with many observances reduced to rote and repetitious rituals. Many of those observances seem to be as much about marketing products as they are about the collective national memory.
This year—like last year and the year before that—we’ll see ads from major corporations featuring the images of African-American iconography: Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Civil War-era soldiers, the Freedom Riders and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. … the usual suspects. Elementary school teachers will devote blocks of time for students to recite the biographical talking points of those and other black historical figures; on television and radio, and in school assemblies everywhere, we can expect to hear most of the same one-minute sound bites from King’s “I Have a Dream” oration.
But this year’s Black History Month will be different, taking place as it does against a backdrop of unprecedented change in the national leadership. As the events of the last month have convincingly shown, there’s no separating the current fortunes and histories of 37 million African Americans from the rest of the America.
When black American history intertwines so completely with American history in general, what’s the rationale for separating them?