Great Lives Our library

Carter G Woodson: The Father of Black History

Those who have no record of what their forebears have accomplished lose the inspiration which comes from the teaching of biography and history – Carter G Woodson

Manchester is gearing up for Black History Month (BHM) in October – take a look at the programme of events happening across the city on the BHMGM website. Out of our own events this year I’m especially excited about The Different Voices of Nina Simone poetry workshop and You Hide Me: African Art in British Museums film screening.

Although BHM has a distinctly cultural flavour, it has always been about education. Back in 1987 Akyaaba Addai-Sebo explained that October had been chosen as the UK’s BHM because in Africa it is traditionally a time of plenty, of reconciliation and of bequeathing wealth and knowledge to the next generation. This coincides nicely with the start of the British school year, when children’s ‘minds are refreshed and revitalised, so they can take in a lot of instruction’. Quite right.

Source: David from Washington, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Source: David from Washington, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The education of children was at the heart of the work of Carter G Woodson (1875 – 1950), the so-called ‘Father of Black History’ and founder of Negro History Week, the precursor to today’s US and UK Black History Months.

As a self-taught man and an educator, Woodson became acutely aware of how African American experiences were whitewashed from US history. When they did feature in the history books, Black people were portrayed in positions of subjugation and dependency, ‘fortunate’ to receive the ‘civilising influence’ of white American culture and society. His deepest concern was that the teaching of this history to Black children in schools amounted to cultural indoctrination. His 1933 book The Miseducation of the Negro presents the thesis that by internalising this history young Black people were being brainwashed into accepting inferior positions within society.

He encouraged African Americans to become self-taught (like him); to seek out their own histories and be inspired by them. Education was far more than just the absorption of facts, it had to do with the extent to which people are empowered and enabled to take control of their own lives.

Woodson gave up a lucrative career in mainstream education to start filling the historical void. He researched and published numerous books on African American history and assembled vast archives of primary material about African American life.  He established the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, and its publications Journal of Negro History and Negro History Bulletin, which provided platforms for other Black historians to publish and disseminate their research. It was a project much wider than simply bringing hidden histories to the surface; it was about making Black history a legitimate area of intellectual enquiry, and thus raising the status of the Black American population.

In 1925 the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History announced the first official Negro History Week as the second week of February (coinciding with the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln). Promoted as a time to teach African American history in schools, it steadily gained momentum during the mid-twentieth century, until 1976 when US President Gerald Ford proclaimed February as Black History Month; the official, annual, national recognition of Black history.

In many ways BHM has been a great success story, but it has always been controversial. African American actor Morgan Freeman has said:

You’re going to relegate my history to a month? I don’t want a Black History Month. Black history is history.

Woodson himself prefigured these concerns by emphasising that his project wasn’t about ‘Negro history’ but ‘the negro in history’; you can’t understand contemporary American culture, politics or society without first understanding the experiences of slavery. He too hoped that one day Negro History Week would become unnecessary and that African American history would become integrated into the mainstream education.

Certainly, in an ideal world history would be taught in inclusive and diverse ways, incorporating stories of people from all walks of life, with names such as Mary Seacole, Olaudah Equiano and William Cuffay as familiar as Florence Nightingale, Brunel and Napoleon. But we’re not there yet, either in the US or the UK, and until this is commonplace we at the AIU Resource Centre and Education Trust believe that Black History Month offers a powerful opportunity to focus on Black achievements and experiences, and to combat miseducation in both the classroom and the community.

By aiucentre

An open access library specialising in the study of race, ethnicity and migration. Part of the University of Manchester and based at Manchester Central Library.

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