First established on February 7, 1926 as Negro History Week under the leadership of African American historian Carter G Woodson, director of the Association for the Study of Negro American Life and History, which was renamed the Association for the Study of African American Life and History in 1972, Black History Month honours the achievement of black people under the adversities imposed by slavery and racism.
Certainly, when he established Negro History Week, Woodson saw this annual dedication as a celebration. He indicated this by choosing the second week of February as Negro History Week because it coincided with the birthdays of two of the most significant figures in the long fight to end slavery and racial injustice: the birthdays of African-American abolitionist Frederick Douglass and US president Abraham Lincoln, who initiated the emancipation of slaves during the Civil War.
Woodson, as public historian Lerone Bennett. Jr, once wrote, saw the establishment of Negro history week as his proudest accomplishment since, as he said, “no other single thing has done so much to dramatize the achievement of persons of African blood.”
In his 1927 annual report for the Association for the Study of Negro American Life and History, Woodson cautioned that a festive attitude toward black history was insufficient. Celebration had to be accompanied by the broader of goal of establishing truth and fostering an understanding
of history without sectional or racial bias. One of the reasons for the success of Negro History week, he said, “is that the Association has convinced most of the thinking public that this celebration, like its other efforts, tends not to promote propaganda, but to counteract it by popularizing the truth. It is not interested so much in Negro History as it is in history influenced by the Negro; for what the world needs is not a history of selected races or nations but the history of the world void of national bias, race hate, and religious prejudice. There has been, therefore, no tendency to eulogize the Negro nor to abuse his enemies. The aim has been to emphasize important facts in the belief that facts properly set forth will speak for themselves.” Learn more in The Life & Legacy of Carter G. Woodson
While the meaning of this statement from Woodson, writing in the fall of 1927, is absolutely clear, it contains the key distinctions – “history influenced by the Negro” and “history of the world void of national bias” – that deserve reflection and ongoing contemplation today. What indeed, we may ask, is history influenced by black people as opposed to black history per se?
What do we mean by black history?
We may ask a further question relevant to the study and understanding of black history today: What boundaries and subject matter legitimately constitute what we mean by black history?
As an historian and teacher interested in the transatlantic and global history and presence of black people, my own inclination is to suggest that it is a history, which ought not to contain boundaries either of a geographical, intellectual or disciplinary sort.
While it is legitimate, say, to celebrate and pursue the study of black history in Canada or the United States because it fills in the texture or nuances and challenges conventional Eurocentric ideas about the originating substance and spirit of these nation states, we fall short in terms of conceiving an idea of black history that probes and seeks to answer a further set of questions: Who are black people? What thoughts and answers have they come up with for themselves about this question and what their history is and ought to be about?
Interestingly on this score, we see diasporic Africans venturing to answer this question, in artistic forms as beautifully crafted as the lines of Aimé Césaire’s 1939 narrative poem, Notebook, of a return to the Native Land, in which he asserts blackness (black personhood) as a self-defining life rather than an object for others:
My negritude is not a stone, its deafness hurled against the clamor of the day
my negritude is not a leukoma of dead liquid over the earth’s dead eye
my negritude is neither tower nor cathedral
it takes root in the red flesh of the soil
it takes root in the ardent flesh of the sky
it breaks through opaque prostration with its upright patience.
We would, if we paid close attention to them, notice a similar will to find answers the question – who are we? – by black artists whose work, on the surface, seem too ephemeral and commercially driven and of little use for understanding what black people might say about
themselves and their place and stake in history.
I think here, for instance, of Michael Jackson’s sublimated identity with the militant history of the late 1960s Black Panther Party in the closing footage of the promotional video for his song, “Black or White”, in which he transmogrifies into a black panther slinking out of a studio onto a deserted street at night.
Likewise, no-one interested in the rich confluence between black history and black expressive culture can casually bypass African American diva Beyoncé’s latest promotional video for her song, “Formation”, without being struck by images that draw attention to events –sinuously linking current affairs to history – that have impacted significantly on African American lives such as the New Orleans flood and racist policing and extrajudicial killings that have caused almost as much public outrage in the last two years as they did as far back as the 1960s.
The influence of Africa
We cannot wholesomely understand – let alone roundly enjoy – the musical and cultural matrix that includes jazz, blues, soul, funk, hip hop, reggae, and vibrant experiments in black poetry and literature using Black English (so-called Ebonics) or Jamaican patois (which novelist Marlon James brilliantly deploys in his award-winning book, A Brief History of Seven Killings), without appreciating the retention and continuity of African-originating linguistic and cultural traces among black people in the Americas.
Our celebrations of Black History Month would be terribly inadequate if we failed to recall and commit ourselves to exploring the indelible influence that continental Africa has had in the history of diasporic Afro-American thought and culture and the presence of an ongoing sense of “African” identity among diasporic black people whether they live in South America, the Caribbean or in various parts of North America.
A new challenge
Lastly, one challenge we should give ourselves as we reflect on black history is to find time to listen closely to wide varieties of black music made both within Africa and the diasporic world.
Listen especially to classic Jamaican reggae songs like Bob Marley’s “War/No More Trouble”, with lyrics based almost word for word on part of Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie’s 1963 speech to the UN General Assembly.
Also, there is Peter Tosh’s song “African” (1977), which asserts the value of continuing Afro-American identity with Africa, and Burning Spear’s, “Slavery Days” (1975), which gives us a haunting musical touch of what field hollers and shouts may have sounded like among peasants in Africa or among field hands on the slaves plantations of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in the Americas.
If we pay attention in this way, we will see that black history is in the very atmosphere of our daily lives, in sounds, in cuisine, dance styles, in street language, in theatre and poetry or perhaps even in hair and dress-styles that we may never, at first glance, have associated with black history.
If we pay attention this in way, we are also more likely to appreciate that Black History deserves far more than a month of celebration.
Dr. Joe Kelly is an Assistant Professor in History at Athabasca University. He specialises in U.S. labour and social history. His dissertation in History at the University of Toronto focuses on African American railroad workers in the Deep South in the early twentieth century. He is currently developing a course on post civil war U.S. History that puts the activities of ordinary men and women at the centre of the story. Joe has a professional background as a researcher, editor and freelance writer. His interest in the study of history is inspired by the idea that ordinary working people’s ongoing pursuit of social justice, equality and freedom is the spirit which motivates progress through time as well as rich innovations in modern culture such as the novel forms of musical expression (i.e. the spirituals, blues and jazz) which are an intrinsic aspect of African American experience in U.S.History.