Monday, February 13, 2012

Why is Black History Month in February?

Every year, the question "why did we get stuck with the shortest month of the year for Black History Month?" is asked.

I am almost ashamed to say I only learned the answer recently, in preparing for speaking at Durham College/UOIT’s Black History Month Mix and Mingle, last week.

But, I'm not fully ashamed because, as is the case with most Black History, the answer is out there, but it's not provided easily, one must actively go and get it, unlike normative histories that are entrenched in the standard curricula. That this question keeps coming up also demonstrates the continued value of Black History Month - there is still so much we have to learn.

So, while the answer is "out there", I’ll summarize it here to build up the content availability, and then add some OughtThoughts.

Dr. Carter G. Woodson, the second African-American to earn a doctorate from Harvard; the founder of the Association for the Study of African-American Life and History (ASALH); the man whom many call the “father of Black History,” developed what he originally called “Negro History Week” in 1920. He set it for the second week in February to coincide with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln (12th) and Frederick Douglass (14th), two prominent players in the fight for abolition.

In 1926, Dr. Woodson changed the name to “Black History Week.” He died in 1950. In 1976, fifty years after Black History Week was established, the ASALH expanded Black History Week to the full month; and thus have we Black History Month.

In other words, “we weren’t stuck with” the shortest month – the person widely recognized as the greatest builder, defender and promoter of Black History, chose this month for its significance in our history. This is a big deal - at the very least, what we have in Black History Month is:
  • a statement of self-determinism, and empowerment: February was not “given to us”, it was chosen, and expanded, by us; 
  • a way marker: pointing to two leaders in our history and, by extension, pointing to the history itself - the literature, rhetoric and assembly in defense of abolition; the sheer mass of enterprises pitted against each other (one to maintain that old way of life, and the other to dismantle the old way and usher in a new way of life); the defiant inner-light of people who, despite all the negative reinforcement, still considered themselves “people” and could only will and drive towards the claiming and restoring of that dignity; 
  • a symbol of joint interest: two leaders, from opposite racial “sides” who yet strove for a common goal - a common good;
  • a nudge to learn, a catalyst for inquiry, discovery, learning. For all people.
For those people who first celebrated Negro History Week almost 100 years ago, the whys and wherefores were no doubt well known. Having receded from plain view by the sands of time, it’s a good exercise for us to bring to the fore those whys and wherefores and appreciate what Black History Month can mean to everyone.

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