Historian Carter G. Woodson announced in 1926 that the second week of February, which includes the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, should be celebrated as Negro History Week.
One of the best arguments in favor of designating moments for purposes like this is that history took the time to record Lincoln’s birth while Douglass’ master did not record his. After escaping slavery and teaching himself to read and write, Douglass endeavored to learn the date of his birth. He understood something all of us simply take for granted. That, to be born on a particular day, and subsequently die on a particular day, and to have these defining moments of one’s life carved into wood or stone is to validate one’s humanity.
“By far the larger part of the slaves know as little of their ages as horses know of theirs,” Douglass wrote in his autobiography, “and it is the wish of most masters within my knowledge to keep their slaves thus ignorant.” To celebrate or even acknowledge the existence of Douglass’ birthday would have weakened the distorted notion of white supremacy used to justify his enslavement.
For the first two-and-a-half centuries of Afro-American existence, slave owners were acutely aware of the humanizing influence of history, that the stories we are told of our forebears and the scratchings we ourselves leave behind, merge our own narrative into the larger tapestry of human existence. On the plantation, manipulating the record of events became a tool of human bondage no less oppressive than shackles around ankles and lashes upon backs.
Denying slaves the significance of their birth and withholding from them the opportunity to preserve their history required controlling what was put to paper. The evidence is found within the white man’s own law. In 1740, long before the American Revolution, the English colony of South Carolina enacted a statute which prohibited teaching slaves how to write because it “may be attended with great inconveniences.” A Virginia statute of 1819 outlawed assembling for the purpose of teaching reading and writing to slaves. Further, the issuance of a warrant to break up these meetings included the right to “inflict corporal punishment… not exceeding twenty lashes.”
This is the grave contradiction of slavery; the master’s hypocritical compulsion to punish those who would educate his slaves—in language and in their own history—
because then he must confront what might become of his own status when those he oppresses no longer accept their condition. This is the power of literacy, the power of an educated mind, the power bestowed upon those who embrace learning. It is the sad pathology of white supremacy that slave-owners, and the segregationists who followed in their wake, have always been acutely aware that an educated slave is no slave at all.
In his defense of Negro History Week, Carter Woodson proclaimed that, “If a race has no history… it stands in danger of being exterminated.” Fifty years later, President Gerald Ford took the celebration a step farther during the nation’s bicentennial in 1976 by recognizing February as Black History Month.
I haven’t always believed this, but it seems to me now that Black History Month has served us well even though many would disagree. For instance, Ta-Nehisi Coates has recently written that, as a student, Black History Month meant being “herded into assemblies for a ritual review of the civil rights movement… and it seemed that the month could not pass without a series of films dedicated to the glories of being beaten on camera. The black people in these films seemed to love the worst things in life—loved dogs that rent their children apart, the tear gas that clawed at their lungs, firehoses that tore off their clothes and tumbled them into the streets… Why are they showing this to us?”
I guess I shouldn’t be surprised to discover that while I showed these same films to my students, not only in February, by the way, many of them may have reacted to these scenes in unanticipated ways.
Regardless, the debate over the wisdom of setting aside February to correct past injustices is irrelevant to the idea that underscores Black History Month: American history sans the black experience is, ipso facto, deeply flawed. Indeed, a full-throated and racially diverse account of our nation’s past is only now beginning to undo much of the fiction built around the rhetorical justifications of slavery, segregation, and other human oppressions. I think Black History Month has played a part in this progress.
I’m not sure if I lived up to these ideals during my teacher days. One thing is certain, though. I understood the significance of Black history as integral to American history and would like to believe that I didn’t wait around for February to incorporate this into my instruction.
Despite misgivings regarding Black History Month tokenism, I have always played along with the celebration. One year, as part of a class project, a student of mine named Marcus Streeter created a series of videotaped spots that were broadcast during the school’s morning TV announcements. For 20 or so days in February, the school heard from Marcus who, by all appearances, was eminently qualified to deliver the daily black history lessons.
“Hello, I’m Marcus Streeter and this is Black History Month. Did you know that [snap and point finger at camera] George Washington Carver studied peanuts?”
Or, my absolute favorite, “Hello, I’m Marcus Streeter and this is Black History Month. Did you know that [snap and point finger at camera] Jan Matzeliger invented the shoe-lasting machine?”
By the middle of February, Marcus’ classmates were all greeting him with a snap and a point. Black History Month turned him into a celebrity. It was only later that I began to wonder what Black History Month meant to Marcus; what he thought about the white teacher picking the black kid to do the dirty work of catching all of us up on four centuries of neglect. That’s a lot to ask of a fourteen-year-old.