Welcome to Black History Month.
The idea originated with historian Carter G. Woodson, best remembered for having published “The Mis-Education of the Negro” in 1933. In it, Woodson argued, “The so-called modern education does others so much more good than it does the Negro, because it has been worked out in conformity with the needs of those who have oppressed weaker people.” Woodson initiated a "Negro History Week" each February, which in 1976 officially became Black History Month.
Woodson chose this month because it includes the birthdays of both Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. By celebrating black history, Woodson believed we would move closer to our nation’s motto of “E Pluribus Unum.”
We’re getting there, but we’re not there yet.
A few months ago I was on a cross-country train ride. I was seated in the observation car alongside several college freshmen. It was a multiracial group, and all the young people were excited by school and the latest fads, music and television shows. One among the gaggle was a young African-American woman.
When the train briefly stopped in Harpers Ferry, W.Va., I rushed to the window because I had to catch a glimpse of the historic site. So did the African-American college freshman. But her friends were less than wowed.
“This is Harpers Ferry,” she explained. “You know, where John Brown ... The raid.”
Her friends wore blank expressions.
“You’re kidding,” she finally said with a sigh.
Ignorant of a moment in history they had never been taught — or which they had covered cursorily and then forgotten — the others could only shrug.
These young people were united in many ways, but they had not inherited a common history.
Woodson would not have been happy.
In his vision, the students would all have a modicum of knowledge of the American Revolution, the Constitutional Convention, Presidents Washington and Lincoln, Gens. Grant and Lee, Thomas Edison, World Wars I and II. But they would also share in equal parts knowledge of the Middle Passage, the stories of Olaudah Equiano, Benjamin Banneker, Sojourner Truth, John Brown, Reconstruction, the Buffalo Soldiers, James Weldon Johnson, the Great Migration, Emmett Till and the many heroes of the struggle for civil rights who preceded Martin Luther King.
Yes, today, we have a president who is a black American, and de jure segregation is a thing of the past. But we don’t yet have a shared history of who we are as a nation.
That’s why Black History Month is so important.
Many public libraries will post a Black History Month reading list. Please make use of the recommended titles.
Many schools will offer special programs or assemblies on the month. Please encourage your children or grandchildren to attend.
Black History Month is intended to escort us toward an honorable goal.
Let’s reach it together.
Darryl Lorenzo Wellington is a poet and journalist living in Santa Fe, N.M. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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