I remember being in school as a kid and wondering why we were only taught about historical Black figures during February. I then remember being confused because we only talked about well-known names like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. There was the occasional mention of Frederick Douglass or George Washington Carver but I never really learned about any other Black Americans in school. It was the same thing every year. I remember there being no real emphasis on how Black Americans contributed to the history of the United States. Black History Month felt like a speed bump — over just as quickly as it started and pretty uneventful.
The older I got, the more I realized that there was way more to the story than what we were being taught in school. Although their stories were stunted and limited to a month, the contributions of Black Americans were right between the lines of every historical account in our American History books. I soon realized that if it weren’t for Black History Month, there would be nothing taught in schools about these contributors to history.
Black History Month began as Negro History Week in 1926 and took place the second week in February. It has since expanded into a month of celebrating the lives and achievements of Black Americans. First introduced by Harvard-trained historian Dr. Carter G. Woodson and Minister Jesse E. Moorland, this annual celebration was meant to recognize the contributions of African Americans which would otherwise go unnoticed. In 1976, President Gerald Ford officially recognized Black History Month and called upon the public to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”
Since then, there has been no official expansion of Black History Month. Dr. Woodson’s goal was not to stop at just teaching Black History one week or month out of a year, but to expand and have it included in America’s historical curriculum year-round. Thankfully, there are many who share this viewpoint and continue to work to realize Dr. Woodson’s dream.
Associate Professor of History Dr. Bobby J. Donaldson of the University of South Carolina College of Arts and Sciences is one who continues to build on Dr. Woodson’s ideas. “In my work as a teacher and in my role as a leader with the Columbia SC 63: Our Story Matters project and the Center for Civil Rights History and Research, I strongly believe that the recovery, preservation, and dissemination of African American history is a needed and never-ending mission. The history is too deep and expansive to be confined to a given moment on a calendar. My motto: History, Everyday, All Year.”
Until Dr. Woodson’s dream is realized and Black History is officially recognized and included in American History, we can continue to educate ourselves and those around us and celebrate Black History’s impact and influence on our daily lives.
Here are some titles to help get you started:
Four Hundred Souls is a unique one-volume “community” history of African Americans. The editors, Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain, have assembled 90 brilliant writers, each of whom takes on a five-year period of that 400 year span. The writers explore their periods through a variety of techniques: historical essays, short stories, personal vignettes and fiery polemics. They approach history from various perspectives: through the eyes of towering historical icons or the untold stories of ordinary people; through places, laws and objects. While themes of resistance and struggle, of hope and reinvention, course through the book, this collection of diverse pieces from 90 different minds, reflecting 90 different perspectives, fundamentally deconstructs the idea that Africans in America are a monolith — instead it unlocks the startling range of experiences and ideas that have always existed within the community of Blackness.
In 1773, a young, African American woman named Phillis Wheatley published a book of poetry that challenged Western prejudices about African and female intellectual capabilities. Based on fifteen years of archival research, The Age of Phillis, by award-winning writer Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, imagines the life and times of Wheatley: her childhood in the Gambia, West Africa, her life with her white American owners, her friendship with Obour Tanner, and her marriage to the enigmatic John Peters. Woven throughout are poems about Wheatley’s “age” ― the era that encompassed political, philosophical, and religious upheaval, as well as the transatlantic slave trade. For the first time in verse, Wheatley’s relationship to black people and their individual “mercies” is foregrounded, and here we see her as not simply a racial or literary symbol, but a human being who lived and loved while making her indelible mark on history.
by Eddie S. Glaude Jr.
Strange Fruit Volume I is a collection of stories from early African American history that represent the oddity of success in the face of great adversity. Each of the nine illustrated chapters chronicles an uncelebrated African American hero or event. From the adventures of lawman Bass Reeves, to Henry “Box” Brown’s daring escape from slavery.
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