Carter G. Woodson—the father of Black History Month
2014 features a new direction for this blog. As I continue to work through which ventures of mine will see the light of day through publication, I’m going to spend January and February of this new year explaining some of the problems/issues I have had in presenting what is known as Black History as a backdrop for the fiction that I write.
The widespread narrative of Black history that is taught to children in school in the United States, no matter what racial group they belong to is: there are many years of slavery with downtrodden black people, Abraham Lincoln comes along and frees the slaves, Rosa Parks gets tired and refuses to get off of a bus, but then Martin Luther King, Jr. comes along to help her, is assassinated and Barak Obama is elected president. I wish that I could say this ‘fast sweep of history were a joke, but I know that this sweep of Black History is still presented in schools today. When my students come to me in college, this is what they are able to relate to me on day one of my classes.
To be fair, history gets the short shrift all over, but I’m focusing on Black history as the concern of this blog. Carter G. Woodson would certain be disappointed that students aren’t able to articulate the richness and complexity of African Americans in a more nuanced way. The son of slaves, born in 1875, he was the second Black man to obtain a Ph.D. from Harvard. Korey Brown discusses Woodson’s background on the website of the organization he founded, the Association for the Study of African American Life and History. It wasn’t called that when Woodson founded it, of course, but that is what it is called today.
He founded this organization with the intent of showing that the historical experiences of Black History were more complex than people thought. The commemoration of Negro History week started in 1926 and expanded to a Black History Month fifty years later. I’m not advocating for more recognition beyond the month of February, but the expansion of the commemoration from a week to a month begs for more recognition of the complexity of the experience. And no, it doesn’t take place during February because it is the shortest month. This often-tossed around joke by comedians has served to obscure Woodson’s real purpose: to commemorate the births of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. Woodson would be disappointed.
His home is a landmark in Washington D.C. where people can visit and appreciate his efforts in spreading the word about the richness and complexity of the experience of Blacks in the United States. In the numerous trips I’ve made to Washington D.C., I’m ashamed to say I’ve never visited his home, but I will visit my very next trip in the spring (shown here). His life is a part of the history that proves there were triumphs amid the struggles between slavery and Civil Rights. According to Brown, Woodson didn’t begin his formal education until he was 20 but still managed to earn his way to a Ph.D—from Harvard seventeen years later. His is a story of victory, and yet, not enough people know of him.
I hope this column has served to rectify that problem.