Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Black History Month Reveals the Gaps in the Historical Narrative

Is History More Complete Since the Days of Dr. Carter G. Woodson?

Carter G. Woodson
February is Black History Month, and the history of its observance is central to Washington, DC with its tradition of African-American scholars and scholarship. In 1926, Carter G. Woodson launched Negro History Week with the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (now the Association for the Study of African American Life and History). Woodson lived and worked in the District, and had incorporated the ASNLH there 11 years earlier. He believed that mainstream education functioned as propaganda lifting the history and culture of Europeans over that of others. In a letter to Thomas A. Barnes justifying the ASNLH creation of a home study department, Woodson wrote:

“The fact is that the so-called history teaching in our schools and colleges is downright propaganda, an effort to praise one race and to decry the other to justify social repression and exploitation. The world is still in darkness as to the actual progress of mankind. Each corner of the universe has tended to concern itself merely with the exploits of its own particular heroes. Students and teachers of our time, therefore, are the victims of this selfish propaganda.”

Carter G. Woodson House, Washington, DC
Courtesy: Historical Society of Washington, DC
Woodson was the first child of enslaved parents to receive a PhD. from Harvard University, but was barred from teaching at his alma mater because of his race. He spent his post graduate years teaching in public schools before joining the faculty at Howard University. He was familiar with the U.S. education system at all levels when he created Negro History Week, and was determined to return blacks to the American historical narrative. In 1972 the name and scope of the celebration was changed to Black History Month.

During the past two or three decades, many scholars, educators, and journalists have challenged the relevance and validity of the observance, charging it with tokenism, exploitation, and intellectual segregation. The most common critique is that by relegating African-American history to a single month, it gives us license to ignore it for the other eleven. Some have written that Black History Month is used as a mere marketing tool; businesses put out banners, display photographs of Martin Luther King, Jr., and expect that their contributions will be rewarded with improved public sentiment. This collective empathy is central to the final criticism – that Black History Month is an empty obligation that makes us feel good and assuages guilt, but lacks any substance (largely attributable to the effects of commercialization). 

These arguments are likely all valid in some capacity, but their authors' desire to spot broad social trends often renders the actual accomplishments of Black History Month invisible. Negative reviews of Woodson's creation regularly overlook his original intentions, fail to evaluate whether those intentions are actually being achieved, and almost never suggest alternatives. 

Black History Month does not encourage the inclusion of an alternate historical narrative. By setting some time apart each year to study that separate narrative exclusively, it shows us that the accepted version of American history is quite incomplete without it. Highlighting black history for a set period emphasizes its absence elsewhere, but Black History Month does not cause this absence, it cries out for a remedy. 

Since its founding, but especially since the beginning of its nation-wide observation, Black History Month has gradually begun to fill the gaping holes in American history observed by Woodson in the 1920s. Recently, the Humanities Council of Washington, DC has featured some of its materials related explicitly to African-American history on HCTV and the DC Digital Museum catalog, but they are just two or three out of hundreds that could have qualified. Thanks to Washingtonian, Carter G. Woodson, and his insistence that we pay special attention to Black History for a dedicated period out of each year, few HCWDC grantees have been able to produce projects that exclude it; we simply cannot tell a story without including revelations gained from Black History Months past. Granted, DC has a unique history; for many years it has had a majority black population, and was home to free blacks before the Civil War. The fact remains, however, that Woodson and the ASNLH saw the need for improved black history education based primarily on their observations in the nation's capital. 

In 2011, the HCWDC (and likely many other cultural institutions around the country) would be hard-pressed to relegate emphasis of African-American history to a single month, but in the interest of advancing Woodson's cause and contributing to a still woefully incomplete mainstream narrative of American history, beginning tomorrow, we will highlight select items from the DC Digital Museum. Don't be surprised though, if the series outgrows February!


  1. Woodson's story is incredible! What a visionary. I look forward to seeing the rest of this series!

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