Reflections on Black History Month: There Is Still Progress to Be Made
Seventy-eight years ago, Negro History Week, the precursor to Black History Month, was created to allow for the identification and celebration of the contributions of African Americans in our history and in our presence. While Black History Month promotes African American cultural empowerment and understanding, it also inspires learning for all age groups and ethnicities.
In 1915, the Harvard-trained African American historian Dr. Carter G. Woodson founded the Association for the Study of Negro (now African American) Life and History (ASALH) to research and document African American history. Woodson felt strongly that a more pervasive and thorough understanding of African American history would accomplish two very critical goals. First, a more in-depth understanding of African American history would promote pride within the Black community. Second, a deeper understanding and appreciation for Black history would foster greater respect for the African American community within the broader society. In February of 1926, Woodson introduced the annual celebration of Negro History Week — purposely choosing the second week of February for the annual event to commemorate the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln.
I recall my own first experience with Negro History Week as a young boy when I had to make a presentation on the great 19th-century African American abolitionist and statesman Frederick Douglass. That experience created an interest and appreciation for African American history that has remained with me since that February in the early 1960s.
Over the last few years, there has been much discussion about Black History Month outliving its usefulness. Some have criticized the selection of February to commemorate Black history by saying it is the shortest month of the calendar year. Others have claimed that America should not short-change African American contributions by limiting discussion and recognition of Black achievements to only one month during the year. And there are even some who question why African Americans need a month to celebrate their history.
Most of these arguments are spurious at best and disingenuous at worst. In the 78 years since the founding of Negro History Week, there have been many positive changes. Woodson would be honored to see that his efforts and assertions have played a role in making Black history a well-established, legitimate and respected subject of study. Yet while celebrations of Black history have elevated African American history and African American scholars to academic respectability, there is still progress to be made. The social, psychological and economic advances that Woodson presumed would flow from his efforts for Blacks are still difficult to identify at the beginning of the 21st century.
So until African American history is included in the regular history curriculum of elementary, secondary and postsecondary institutions, Woodson’s vision remains unfulfilled and the contributions Black Americans have made to further modern society with advances in medicine, technology, science, engineering, transportation and aerospace communication, just to name a few, are underrepresented.
Black history — and the celebration of it — is critical at a time when racial profiling, professional inequality and failing school systems are not yet archived in history. The commemoration of the struggles, achievements and milestones of Black men and women of the past and present day reminds us of the progress that has been made but equally as important, the distance that our nation has yet to travel.
— Barry L. Wells is senior vice president and dean of student affairs at Syracuse University.
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