Published on February 23rd, 20152
Chidike Okeem: Dr. Carter G. Woodson and Black History Month
Eminent black historian Dr. Carter G. Woodson started Negro History Week in 1926, which intended to redress the lack of attention paid to black achievement in society and in academia. This later morphed into Black History Month. However, Black History Month, as it exists today, is a lukewarm version of what Woodson envisaged. Woodson wanted Negro History Week to be a celebration of black achievement, history, and culture. However, looking at the tepid practice of Black History Month today, one would be excused for erroneously believing that the bulk of black historical achievements began in the 1950s.
Dr. Carter G. Woodson, the second African American to receive a Ph.D. from Harvard University after renowned sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois, was famously both pro-African and pro-capitalism. Woodson understood the freeing power of capitalism and the potential it has for self-uplift. For serious, solution-oriented black conservatives today, Woodson provided a model of how one can be enthusiastically pro-market, doggedly anti-Marxist economics, and do so while being unapologetically African. He demonstrated that endorsement of free market economics does not have to coincide with self-hatred and anti-blackness.
Ideally, Black History Month is something that should be unnecessary in the Western world in the 21st century. Those who make the argument that black history should not be relegated to a limited period of time on the calendar make a point that is worthy of noting. However, Woodson’s goal in creating Negro History Week was to encourage the widespread appreciation of black historical achievements, and it was a necessary tool when he created it. The fact that Black History Month still continues today demonstrates the sheer extent of the erasure of blackness from the great achievements of history. It demonstrates that blackness is still undervalued, unappreciated, and only recognized when it can be attached to abjection and negativity. By now, the Western world ought to be at a point where black achievements are afforded as much respect as the achievements of other groups.
If Black History Month is to stay true to Woodson’s vision, then promotion of black achievement needs to be the focus. Rather, as it exists today, Black History Month predominantly focuses on Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954, the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-1956, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and other breakthroughs from oppression that occurred during that period. It is crucial to note that Woodson died in 1950—before the monumental events and milestones of the modern civil rights movement began. Given that Woodson was not alive for the bulk of the civil rights gains of the 1950s and 1960s, the modern civil rights movement could not have been part of his vision for the recognition of black achievement. Woodson astutely believed that asserting the importance of black people to world civilization was an inextricable component of reducing the prevalence of anti-blackness and racism in the Western world. Spotlighting freedom from oppression was not the primary goal of Negro History Week, inasmuch as Woodson knew there was more to black achievement and black culture. Woodson understood that the history of black Americans does not begin with slavery; rather, it begins with grand, ancient civilizations in Africa.
In many ways, Negro History Week as envisioned by Woodson is as much about the African continent and African ancestors as it is about African Americans. He knew that African Americans would never live up to their potential without an integral understanding of who black people are and what the African has contributed to world history and civilization. In his magnum opus, The Mis-Education of the Negro, published in 1933, Woodson wrote:
In history, of course, the Negro had no place in this curriculum. He was pictured as a human being of the lower order, unable to subject passion to reason, and therefore useful only when made the hewer of wood and the drawer of water for others. No thought was given to the history of Africa except so far as it had been a field of exploitation for the Caucasian. You might study the history as it was offered in our system from the elementary school throughout the university, and you would never hear Africa mentioned except in the negative. You would never thereby learn that Africans first domesticated the sheep, goat, and cow, developed the idea of trial by jury, produced the first stringed instruments, and gave the world its greatest boon in the discovery of iron. You would never know that prior to the Mohammedan invasion about 1000 A.D. these natives in the heart of Africa had developed powerful kingdoms which were later organized as the Songhay Empire on the order of that of the Romans and boasting of similar grandeur.
Woodson’s point about no thought being given to African history except where Caucasian exploitation is concerned is particularly poignant. Arguably one of the cleverest artifices of white supremacy is the thorough scrubbing out of African civilization and human existence before contact with Europeans. This is why, according to dishonest Western history books, African history begins with European contact and civilization—and, in the American context, African American history begins with slavery. When oppression and subjugation are falsely presented as the genesis of black human identity, it provides a pseudo-intellectual justification for the marginalization of black people both on the African continent and in the diaspora. Moreover, it provides a justification for self-hatred among black people who are not taught any better.
If Woodson were alive today, he would no doubt be disappointed that his brainchild has been degraded. He would be distressed to learn that his goal of the widespread understanding and recognition of black historical achievement is not being realized. Also, he would most likely be pilloried and accused of being a black militant or an extremist—labels that are customarily placed on any black person who attempts to seriously debunk the brazen mendacities that are shamelessly presented in Western history books as unimpeachable. Indeed, the civil rights gains in America during the 1950s and 1960s are monumental, and they are an unquestionably important part of African American history. However, that cannot and should not be the principal focus of Black History Month. Black Americans have African ancestors who were marvelously accomplished, built civilizations, and were intrepid innovators. African Americans,despite a history of oppression, have demonstrated that same entrepreneurial spirit throughout American history. The convenient white supremacist fiction that Africans lived in mud huts before the arrival of Europeans is arrant balderdash. The history of black people does not begin with slavery or colonialism—nor does black achievement begin with gaining civil rights in the West. Black History Month needs to depict the full historical picture of black brilliance—just as Dr. Woodson envisioned.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Chidike Okeem is a conservative writer. Born in Nigeria, raised in London, England, and now living in California, he writes about race, culture, religion, and politics. You can follow him on Twitter @VOICEOFCHID and read the rest of his writings on his website at www.voiceofchid.com.