Black History Month Reminds Us That Black History Is Living History

Black history reimagines the way in which all Americans, irrespective of color, understand their nation and themselves.

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The Solomon Northup family as portrayed in the film 12 Years a Slave

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During this final week of Black History Month, it’s vital to acknowledge the ways in which this month—as well as the activists, students and scholars who support it—transcends mere historical commemorations and academic analysis. It is actively helping to reshape national race relations.

Consider the example of the award-winning film 12 Years a Slave. The companion-book edition, edited by Harvard scholar (and The Root’s editor-in-chief) Henry Louis Gates Jr., is a national best-seller. No doubt this is due, in large part, to the successful film adaptation that raised major awareness and a national debate regarding slavery’s legacy. But the film’s impact and the subsequent success of the reissued account of Solomon Northup’s dozen years of bondage attest to black history’s relevance beyond the walls of ebony-and-ivory towers into the flesh-and-blood world of today.

The DVD release of Gates’ epic, six-part PBS documentary series Many Rivers to Cross: The African Americans exemplifies the manner in which black history, in the 21st century, continues to shape the political, historical and cultural framing of both the past and the present. Many Rivers, which premiered last fall and ran for six consecutive weeks, became something of a phenomenon for its sweeping 514-year history of the black freedom struggle, both domestically and internationally. The series placed black Americans at the center of global struggles for liberation and presented them as the vital heart of the national saga from slavery to freedom, from Jim Crow segregation to civil rights and from black power to President Barack Obama. 

It reminds us that every new generation needs to be told the story of African-American history in a manner that is uniquely suited to its historical context. Social media, new technologies and shorter attention spans require creative and innovative strategies to share the black freedom struggle with young people who are profoundly hungry for a better understanding of America’s past as a path toward a more just and equitable future.

Two Broadway plays—one new and the other a classic—showcase black history’s ability to transform politics through culture. All the Way, a new play chronicling Lyndon Johnson’s one-year sojourn from accidental president to a master legislator who wins the White House in a landslide 1964 election, recalls some of the most iconic civil rights leaders in American history, including Martin Luther King Jr., Stokely Carmichael, Bob Moses and Mississippi sharecropper-turned-organizer Fannie Lou Hamer. The play, which originally premiered last fall at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., masterfully depicts the way in which black activists, in creative tension with a new president, helped usher in landmark social and political legislation.

The Broadway revival of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, headlined by Oscar-winning actor Denzel Washington, showcases one of the 20th century’s most significant artistic and political achievements. Set in civil rights-era Chicago, the play examines the hard choices faced by a black family trying to achieve the American dream in the face of racial and class obstacles. A Raisin in the Sun takes its title from Langston Hughes’ extraordinary poem describing the frustrated aspirations of black Americans living in the age of Jim Crow. Following its original 1959 Broadway premiere, A Raisin in the Sun became a phenomenon that thrust Hansberry into the national media spotlight and helped introduce three-dimensional black characters into mainstream popular culture.

Collectively, the books, films, music, plays and other artifacts that make up black history serve as more than just a testament to the triumphs and tragedies that past generations experienced. Each generation uses its history to shape the present while providing a framework for understanding the future. Black history is living history that remains capable of transforming contemporary debates about race, class and democracy and reimagining the way in which all Americans, irrespective of color, understand their nation and themselves.

Peniel E. Joseph, a contributing editor at The Root, is founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy and a professor of history at Tufts University. He is also the Caperton fellow for the W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute at Harvard University. He is the author of Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America and Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama. His biography of Stokely Carmichael, Stokely: A Life, is due out in March. Follow him on Twitter.