A History of Black History Month

When Carter Woodson was a young boy, his family had very little. They were poor farmers and, to make things worse, they were Black in a post-Reconstruction Virginia where white figures were reasserting control over the political and social sphere. But what they did have was freedom, something Woodson’s parents had gained in their lifetime. He was a free American citizen at his birth, something unthinkable just ten years earlier.

Woodson was well aware of this dramatic turn in American history. He became a historian himself – only the second African-American to earn a PhD from Harvard University – and, in 1915, he founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. At the time, very little scholarship focused on the life of Black Americans, and their history was almost exclusively an oral one, passed down through families or occasionally in ill-circulated books.

The New Negro

“Of all the voluminous literature on the Negro, so much is mere external view and commentary that we may warrantably say that nine-tenths of it is about the Negro rather than of him…”

Alain L. Locke, The New Negro, 1925

The twentieth century began with the Great Migration. Six million Black men, women, and children moved out of the south, resettling in places in Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, and New York. Many of those who went to New York found themselves in Harlem, in working class neighborhoods that were being vacated by Italian and Jewish families. This was part of a common cycle of American cities at the time: poor families would arrive in certain neighborhoods, then depart those neighborhoods when they had the means to move up to somewhere better. But Harlem became something more than just a working class neighborhood; a new intellectual movement sprung up around the “New Negro.”

Who was the New Negro? He was, above all else, no longer content to be described, but rather he wished to describe himself. He was not subservient, as perhaps his parents had been – and as his grandparents, who were almost certainly enslaved, had been obligated to be. He was not less than anyone, and he knew it. He had dreams, ideas, goals, thoughts, and emotions, and he wrote them down, he sang about them, he painted them.

Today, of course, this era is known as the Harlem Renaissance, and it often gets a passing mention in elementary school art classes for producing work like Into Bondage, a 1936 oil painting by Aaron Douglas depicting the slave trade in vibrant colors and striking lines. This often reinforces the idea that the Black experience is not just tied to slavery but exclusively about slavery. Yet the New Negro was explicitly not to defined by others; in the words of Alain Locke, “Of all the voluminous literature on the Negro, so much is mere external view and commentary that we may warrantably say that nine-tenths of it is about the Negro rather than of him, so that it is the Negro problem rather than the Negro that is known and mooted in the general mind. We turn therefore in the other direction to the elements of truest social portraiture, and discover in the artistic self-expression of the Negro to-day a new figure on the national canvas and a new force in the foreground of affairs.”

From the Harlem Renaissance burst new expressions and ideas. Intellectuals in Harlem discussed the virtues and pitfalls of modern society through a Black cultural lens. They wanted to know more about history through this same lens, too, rather than as written by white historians. Not just their history, but the history of the United States and of the world, focused on its Black population.

Carter Woodson had an idea.

Birth of Negro History Week

In Black communities, it was not uncommon to celebrate, sometime in the second week of February, the births of Abraham Lincoln (February 12) and Frederick Douglass (February 14). Woodson made history a part of this celebration with Negro History Week in 1926.

By 1929, Woodson had successfully integrated Negro History Week into the public school curricula of most states with a “considerable” Black student population, though it was rarely discussed in white schools. This created a widening gap, as southern white schools reinforced the Lost Cause, a myth that the Civil War was not really about slavery (its from the Lost Cause that we get the concept of “states’ rights” as a reason for the Civil War, glossing over what exactly the states wanted the right to do). The Lost Cause, which also prominently features lies about the treatment of slaves, was taught in white schools while Negro History Week was taught in Black schools and fortunately this would never lead to any problems of any kind.

Carter Woodson died in 1950, when segregation was still legal across the United States. But four years later, the Supreme Court unanimously declared that school segregation was unconstitutional, which meant that soon – and by soon we mean maybe someday soon, right? – school segregation would be replaced by integrated schools where students learned the same history alongside one another.

In the 1960s, Negro History Week became fairly common in northern and midwestern schools, even those without sizable Black student populations. In these schools it was different, though; where Black schools often learned about history from a Black perspective, white schools often focused on the history of Black people, which had not necessarily been the goal of the whole enterprise.

Kent State University celebrated the first Black History Month in 1970 and was quickly joined by other schools, expanding the week into a one- or two-month event.

White People Get Involved

President Gerald Ford recognized Black History Month in 1976, the bicentennial of the United States. In his remarks, Ford said, “Freedom and the recognition of individual rights are what our Revolution was all about. They were ideals that inspired our fight for Independence: ideals that we have been striving to live up to ever since. Yet it took many years before these ideals became a reality for black citizens.”

Over the next three decades, Black History Month became commonplace in American public schools, often reserving much of it for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (like this “MLK Jr. Day/Black History Month” lesson plan guide from the National Council for the Social Studies) and other prominent Black figures.

Again, this was not the original point, and it’s given a lot of seed for folks to make hay with. In 2005, actor Morgan Freeman called Black History Month “ridiculous” because he said it separated Black history from American history, creating an impression that Black history is not American history. Freeman is right – at least, he’s right that the way Black History Month is carried out in public schools creates this impression. Doing this can also create an ahistorical picture of history. If the school year is spent covering events chronologically, taking time out of that chronology to refocus for one month on a specific racial group can make that group seem detached from history entirely.

Much of the drift in Black History Month comes from the widespread adoption of it in non-Black spaces, which is itself a conundrum. It is hard for a white history teacher in rural North Dakota to talk about the lived experiences of folks in the Harlem Renaissance but much easier to talk about Alain Locke, who was the first Black Rhodes Scholar. There’s a reason that “great man” history is so common; it’s much easier to teach. Yet these teachers are also in a position to downplay elements like Locke’s homosexuality or Martin Luther King Jr.’s democratic socialism, especially when the focus is on their Blackness than on their existence. They are, to echo Locke, described rather than known: explained as figures within Black history and not Black figures within history.

Maus and The Boy With the Striped Pajamas

In January 2022, the McMinn County School Board voted to remove Maus from its curriculum. Maus is a Pulitzer Prize winning graphic novel by Art Spiegelman that depicts a history of the Holocaust using a fairly straightforward metaphor in which the Jewish characters – who are Spiegelman’s own parents – are mice and the Nazis are cats. In McMinn County, Maus was taught to eighth graders – thirteen year olds – but the school board felt that the book was inappropriate for them because it depicts violence, nudity, and has harsh language.

Gwen C. Katz, author of Among the Red Stars, wrote on Twitter that it was likely that McMinn County would replace Maus with The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, another book about the Holocaust that is often used in schools because it was tailor-made for that exact purpose. Katz explained, “It’s taught at countless schools and it’s squeaky-clean of any of the parent-objectionable material you might find in Maus, Night, or any of the other first-person accounts of the Holocaust.”

Maus‘ objectionability is not rooted in Holocaust denial per se, as the McMinn County School Board was careful to say that it was not removing Holocaust education from its curriculum or even that it thought Maus was bad or objectionable for adults. It’s just about the children. Won’t someone please think of the children?

As Black History Month became a national event, it was watered down. It is difficult to engage with many aspects of Black history because it is often dark. Post-slavery history is not less dark – Tulsa, red-lining, urban renewal – but it is more difficult to hide the complacency and complicities of white ancestors, so Black history becomes not about the racist policies of mid-century suburbia but about the attorney who argued the case that ended racial real estate covenants and who went on to the first Black justice on the Supreme Court. Even then, if President Biden successfully places the first Black woman on the court, she’ll be just the third Black justice. 112 have been white. Black history is not just the two Black men on the court but the 112 white men and women who influenced their lives, who upheld their enslavement and their segregation and denied them humanity.

Black History is the history of America, not of its Black population, but of the country as it is seen by Black folks, as it treats them, and as it reckons with itself. In a country that is often so afraid to let its Black citizens tell their own stories, it is vital that, for one month each year, we hand the microphone over to them, at least until we are able to share it for the other eleven months, too.