Most of you know that February is Black History Month. My school is organizing a couple of activities to acknowlege the event. We’ve set up a book discussion group that includes both teachers and students as well as a few outside speakers who will talk with small groups of students about various topics. In addition, students and teachers have been asked to share their thoughts about issues that connect with black history during our school meetings. I’ve been asked to get things started by sharing a few thoughts about the idea of Black History Month. Feel free to comment.
I was asked to say a few words about Black History Month which will be observed through the month of February. The setting aside of a month in recognition of the contributions of black Americans started in 1926 as "Negro History Week" under the direction of Dr. Carter G. Woodson. I have to admit to feeling just a little bit uncomfortable talking about black history. As a historian I like to think of myself as someone interested in American history and more specifically the stories that reflect what all of us value about the history of this country. We admire the people in our past who overcome great obstacles or defy the odds and those that stand firm for the values of freedom and equality. The images that stand out in my own mind include black men fighting with George Washington’s army during the Revolution, the charge of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment against Fort Wagner during the Civil War, the dignity of Frederick Douglass, the words of W.E.B. Dubois, the strength of King in a jail cell in Birmingham writing a justification for his civil disobedience on scraps of paper, and the courage of students your own age sitting defiantly at lunch counters across the South. I find solace and hope in these and other images not because they are black, but because they reflect what makes this country what it is.
At the same time I am all too aware that our historical memory is always selective and who determines that selection often depends on who controls the means through which our collective stories are shared. When Negro History Week started little was known about the contributions of black Americans in large part because few people studied the subject, but more importantly because images of black Americans fighting in the American Revolution, Civil War, and even World War I did not fit into the history of a country that had decided by the 1920’s to legally segregate schools, buses, railroads, movie theaters and other public places along racial lines. As a historian and as a citizen I consider myself lucky that I live at a time where I can read about those contributions as part of our American story. Perhaps, as some have argued, a month set aside for black history is unnecessary. I think the question is worth debating. In the end, however, the recognition of Black History Month serves to remind us of our collective past and in turn hopefully strengthens our collective will as a nation to continue to push towards greater inclusiveness and equality for all.