Young World

Powering through history

Martin Luther King Jr.  

If a race has no history, it has no worthwhile tradition. It becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated.

Carter Godwin Woodson

This is Black History Month. Today, we no longer use the term ‘Black’ for people of African descent in the U.S.. Instead, we say African-Americans. But, February continues to be known as Black History Month.

Laying the foundation

Now why did the African-Americans need a month to look back at what their ancestors had achieved? The answer lies in how people in the early 1900s looked at them. Take, for example, this statement by Prof. John Burgess, founder of the Columbia University Graduate School of Political Science, — “black skin means membership in a race of men which has never of itself succeeded in subjecting passion to reason, has never, therefore, created any civilisation of any kind…” Burgess was an eminent scholar who fought for the Union during the Civil War. Also, the general attitude to people of African descent was negative. To make matters worse, the institution of slavery had ripped apart tribes, clan and families; so, the African-American was not a prominent feature in the social set-up of that time.

In 1926, Dr. Carter Godwin Woodson, the African-American historian and scholar, and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History announced that the second week of February would be devoted to teaching African-American history in public schools. Woodson felt that this was essential for the race to survive both physically and intellectually within the broader society. The second week of February was chosen as the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass fell on February 12 and 14 respectively. Meetings, exhibitions, lectures and seminars were organised to showcase the contributions of African-Americans to society. By the 1960s, this expanded to become ‘Black History Month’. This was formally recognised by the U.S. government in 1976 when President Gerald Ford urged Americans “to seize the opportunity to honour the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavour throughout our history.” Slowly the observance of Black History Month spread to countries like the U.K. and Canada.

Despite all the progress made in the past century or so — thanks to the civil rights movement, independence struggles in African nations and discoveries that show how crucial Africa was to the growth of human civilisation — 2015 saw many African-Americans being gunned down by law enforcers. The resultant campaign “Black Lives Matter” shows that laws are not enough when it comes to combating prejudice. Attitudes will change only when we can eliminate ignorance and so Black History Month continues to be important and relevant to our understanding of the cultural and political experience of the Africans and people of African descent.

Why February?

February was a significant month in African-American history in other ways too. Apart from the birthdays of pioneers like W. E. B. DuBois and Eubie Blake, it was in February 1870 that Hiram Revels, the first African-American senator, was sworn in. The first Pan African Congress took place in February 1919. The National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) was established on February 12, 1909.

Who was Carter Godwin Woodson?

Woodson’s parents were former slaves and he struggled to educate himself. He graduated from Berea College, Kentucky, in 1903 and was awarded his doctorate in history from Harvard. Woodson focused on documenting the talents and accomplishments of African-Americans and issues like education of children of slaves, patterns of migration and family composition, entry into professional streams like medicine and law. Perhaps his most important work is The Mis-Education of the Negro (1933). The Journal of Negro History, begun in 1916 by the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (founded by Woodson), was an important instrument for recording the work of African-Americans.

Important sites

African-Americans arrived in the U.S. long before the Mayflower brought the Pilgrim Fathers from England. From ports where the slave ships docked to Civil War battlefields, from educational sites to places where they settled down, there are many places where African- American history has been created. Among these are the Kingsley Plantation in Jacksonville, Florida; the site of Jean Baptiste Point du Sable’s first home and trading post in Chicago, Illinois; numerous stops along the Underground Railroad; Seneca Village in Manhattan New York City; Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church in Philadelphia; Cedar Hill, home of Frederick Douglass, in Washington DC; Mary McLeod Bethune’s home in Washington, D.C., 125th Street in Harlem, Beale Street in Memphis, and Sweet Auburn Avenue in Atlanta are crucial sites that tell the story of how the African-Americans struggled for equal rights well until the middle of the 20th century.

Well-known names

African-Americans have contributed immensely to American politics, society and cultural sphere. Take a look at these names and see how many you can recognise. Look up those you don’t and see what they’re famous for.

Activists: Booker T. Washington, Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks

Sports: Boxers Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield, tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams, golfer Tiger Woods, and basketball stars Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, LeBron James, Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. There are many more names; this is just a small sample.

Music: Jimi Hendrix, Missy Elliott, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye, Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin, B.B. King, Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Tupac Shakur, Kanye West among others

Movies: Spike Lee, Sidney Poitier, Denzel Washington, Oprah Winfrey, Whoopi Goldberg, Will Smith, Chris Tucker, Halle Berry among others.

Literature: Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, Alice Walker, Alex Haley among others

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Printable version | Jan 16, 2021 11:07:24 AM |

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