Black History 105 Years Later: Do we still need Black History Month?
By John Ashworth, Executive Director, LSP
Dr. Carter G. Woodson, the father of Black History and the founder of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASLAH), intended black history to be a counter-narrative to the institutionalized hatred and vision of African Americans as inferior beings. “Those who have no record of what their forebears have accomplished lose the inspiration which comes from the teaching of biography and history”, Dr. Carter G. Woodson. His hope was that the history and contributions of Black Americans to civilization would become a part of the American story. Once accomplished there would be no need for a separate black history moment.
The events of 1915 renewed Dr. Woodson’s sense of urgency and compelling motivation to create ASLAH and the Black History week. On February 8, 1915, D. W Griffith’s movie, Birth of a Nation, was released. This cinematic marvel depicted the African American Community as savage and uncivilized while glorifying the Ku Klux Klan. History books of that period were filled with much the same distorted view of African Americans.
Birth of a Nation was a silent movie based on Thomas Dixon’s book, The Clansman. It used cutting edge cinematic technology. Cinematic effects of that day combined with explicit racism performed by white actors in blackface left audiences convinced that what they saw was truth. Their biased beliefs were further reinforced by President Woodrow Wilson who commented after the three-hour screening in the White House that “It is like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.”
Fast forward to the 21st Century, scholars and historians have acknowledged Birth of a Nation as a cinematic marvel for its time, but unequivocally one of the most viciously racist films ever produced. The counter-narrative Dr. Woodson sought has yet to be realized.
The continued omission of the African American story from mainstream history and relegation of this story to a single month is to continue to imply that African Americans are less than.
Rarely in the discussions of contributions and accomplishments of African Americans is there a discussion of the social, educational and economic barriers that were erected to deliberately maintain their status as second class citizens. Dr. Woodson’s dream of no need for a continuation of black history week/month will only be realized when barriers are removed and the complete history is told and taught 24/7 365.
Until then black history month will continue to be needed and serve as a serious reminder to all that many still believe history is being written with lightning and that the distortions are true.