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?
Some, however, disagree. “The notion that it’s outlived its usefulness betrays some ignorance of what its purpose was in the first place,” said Howard Dodson, director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, the celebrated Harlem-based repository of black historical documents and artifacts.
“If you follow the logic of those who say Black History Month has outlived its usefulness, they’re also saying that institutions like the Schomburg have outlived their usefulness,” Dodson told me in February 2006.
The fact of President Obama necessarily calls into question the long-standing African-American preoccupation with life in that rearview mirror. His election doesn’t diminish or undercut the importance of black history as an index to the future; it does make the reflexive reverence of Black History Month seem like what it’s fast becoming: an observance with an existence that reinforces a sense of apartness, of separation, that Obama’s election directly contradicts.
To what degree do we tarnish the spirit of black American history by holding it apart from the rest of a society it was meant to interact with?
The issue of continuing Black History Month isn’t really a debate over its value or the worth of expanding it to a yearlong event or a decade-long event. It’s realizing the most important thing about history in general and black history in particular, is that it provides a springboard, a lesson plan for the future.
The election of Barack Obama called on America to rethink its idea of the national future, and, similarly, it called on black Americans to rethink their relationship with history and its true value. William Faulkner once famously observed: “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.” That’s a usefulness that can’t be outlived. That’s a relationship that can’t be fully, adequately contained in a month or a year or a century. African-American history is American history, and we live that history every day of the year.
Michael E. Ross is a regular contributor to The Root.