Society

Origins of Black History Month

Barack Obama

Former US president Barack Obama. PHOTO | AFP

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Summary

  • Also known as African American History Month, the event grew out of Negro History Week, the brainchild of noted historian Carter G. Woodson and other prominent African Americans.
  • Since 1976, every US president has officially designated the month of February as Black History Month.
  • Other countries around the world, including Britain, Ireland and, the Netherlands also devote a month to celebrate Black history.

Black History Month is celebrated annually in February in the United States and Canada. The event celebrates the achievements of African Americans, recognising their central role in the country’s history.

Also known as African American History Month, the event grew out of Negro History Week, the brainchild of noted historian Carter G. Woodson and other prominent African Americans. Since 1976, every US president has officially designated the month of February as Black History Month. Other countries around the world, including Britain, Ireland and, the Netherlands also devote a month to celebrate Black history.

But the real history of Black History Month begins in 1915, half a century after slavery was abolished in the United States. In September of that year, the Harvard-trained historian Carter G. Woodson and the prominent minister Jesse E. Moorland founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH), an organisation dedicated to researching and promoting achievements by Black Americans and other peoples of Black descent. Known today as the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH), the group sponsored a national Negro History week in 1926, choosing the second week of February to coincide with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglas. The event inspired schools and communities nationwide to organise local celebrations, establish history clubs and host performances and lectures.

In the decades that followed, mayors of cities across the country began issuing yearly proclamations recognising Negro History Week. By the late 1960s, fanned in part by the civil rights movement and a growing awareness of Black identity, Negro History Week had evolved into Black History Month on many college campuses.

President Gerald Ford officially recognised Black History Month in 1976, calling upon the public to “seize to honour the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.” Since then, every American president has designated February as Black History Month and endorsed a specific theme each year.

The Black History Month theme for 2021 is “Black family: Representation, Identity and Diversity”, which explores the Black diaspora and the spread of Black families across the United States.

Woodson was a strange and highly motivated man whose only passion was history. To him, Black experience was too important to be left to a small group of academics, believing that his role was to use Black history and culture as a weapon in the struggle for racial uplift, making it available to a wider audience.

The 1920s saw a rise of interest in African-American culture that was represented by the Harlem Renaissance where writers such as Langston Hughes, Georgia Douglass Johnson, Claude McKay, wrote about the joys and sorrows of blackness, and musicians such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Jimmy Lunceford captured the new rhythms of the cities created in part by the thousands of southern blacks who migrated to urban centres like Chicago, and artists like Aaron Douglass, Richard Barthe, and Lois Jones created images that celebrated blackness and provided more positive images of the African-American experience.

Woodson had two goals. One was to use history to prove to White America that blacks had played important roles in building of America and thereby deserve to be treated equally as citizens and not mere chattels. Woodson was saying, in essence, that by celebrating heroic black figures; be they inventors, entertainers or soldiers, he hoped to prove their worth and in so doing, he believed that equality would soon follow.

His other goal was to increase the visibility of black life and history, at a time when few newspapers, books, and universities took notice of the black community, except to dwell upon the negative.

Despite the profound changes in race relations which have occurred over the last 100 years in America, Woodson’s vision for black history as a means of transformation and change is still relevant and useful. The chains of slavery may be gone but we are all not yet free mentally. The great diversity within the black community needs the glue of African-American past to remind us not just how far we have come, but how far there is to go.

The situation is much the same here in Kenya and I dare to suggest that instead of just the one day of celebrations on 20th October, we should hold an extravaganza the whole month of October commemorating our history and diverse cultures. The celebrations should be cascaded down to the counties under the direction of the Ministry of Culture and Heritage and the National Museums of Kenya.

While African culture in Kenya is no longer invisible, celebrations, museums, archives, and libraries not only preserve culture but, they validate it and establish a permanent record, lest we forget. Too much of our history has been paved over, gone through urban renewal, gentrified, unidentified or unacknowledged.

Knowing our history challenges us to preserve our culture and maintain our community while drawing inspiration from it. There is no more powerful force than a people steeped in their history.