In the United States, there is a history of African American holidays, festivals, and celebrations. Scholars such as William H. Wiggins, Jr., Angela Williams, and Mitch Kachun examine African American commemorations revealing a long history of valuing and celebrating freedom with a focus on the people. Mitch Kachun states, “Since the early nineteenth century black Americans’ public commemoration have consistently revolved around the universal progress of freedom, the principle around which African Americans have ordered their activism, the celebrations, and their interpretations of history.”1 Having been stripped of their freedom in Africa and denied their freedom in the United States, Black people commemorate past freedom struggles while continuing to struggle for freedom presently. In doing so, the Black freedom struggle, which began when the first African resisted capture and enslavement, has defined, redefined, and extended freedom’s meaning across generations. As a nation, the United States also celebrates its freedom. The United States declared its freedom on July 4, 1776, and on September 3, 1883, Britian recognized the independence of the new nation with the Treaty of Paris ensuring that the fledgling nation would be free from foreign rule. As a result, it is commonly said that the United States is a free country, but what about the people who reside in the country? A nation independent of foreign rule, like the United States, can still deny freedom to the people. In 1852, Frederick Douglass highlighted the hypocrisy of enslaved people celebrating the freedom of the nation that allows them to be enslaved in “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” Examining African American holidays and festivals reveal that after the American Civil War, Black people celebrated their freedom in diverse ways and called for the freedom of all people internationally. Freedom from enslavement and oppression has been and continues to be a critical theme in African American history, holidays, festivals, and celebrations. In this context, freedom frames Black History Month activities and celebrations.
Freedom is an abstract term and is difficult to define. The challenge is to define freedom not in the context of what is absent, such as freedom from tyranny or enslavement. Instead, define freedom for what it is. It is posited here that freedom, both individually and collectively, refers to being treated with human respect and dignity as well as having a quality of life and material conditions befitting a human. This is what many enslaved Africans in the United States hoped for leading to and following the Union victory after the American Civil War (1861-65). William H. Wiggins, Jr. explains that there were, and are, those that recognize January 1st as the start of Black people’s freedom from chattel slavery in the United States given January 1, 1863 marked the date President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation became effective. Others, such as Robert R. Wright who was a ten-year-old enslaved African in 1863, believed February 1st is the start of Black people’s freedom because February 1st marks the day President Lincoln signed the 13th Amendment to the Constitution effectively outlawing chattel slavery. The 13th Amendment would be ratified into law December 6, 1865. Wright was so convinced that February 1st should be recognized as the date enslaved Africans were freed that he led a campaign to have it federally recognized as National Freedom Day. Juneteenth would also be recognized by others as the official date of Black people’s freedom. However, until 2023 when President Joe Biden officially recognized Juneteenth (June 19th) as a federal holiday, January 1st and Juneteenth were African American holidays by tradition, habit, and custom. 2 Nevertheless, January 1st, February 1st, and Juneteenth have a long history of commemorating the freedom of Black people in the United States in food, festival, music, parades and more. In fact, these organic and grassroots celebrations and commemorations of freedom are acts of freedom in and of themselves. They reaffirm the humanity of Black people and call for freedom for all. President Harry Truman later, decreed February 1st as National Freedom Day in 1949 and to be observed every February 1st from then forward with Wright and the National Freedom Day Association being the major driving force for this recognition.
For African Americans, February is also important due to Black History Month. Launched in 1926 as an annual celebration of Negro History Week, Carter G. Woodson situated the weeklong celebration on the second week of February to commemorate the birthdays of Frederick Douglass (approx. February 14) and Abraham Lincoln (February 12) because of their key roles in securing freedom from chattel slavery for Black people. For Woodson, Black people’s survival required respect, appreciation, and perpetuation of their history. He states, “The Negro knows practically nothing of his history and his ‘friends’ are not permitting him to learn it… [And] if a race has no history, if it has no worth-while tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of extermination.” Woodson’s gendered language suggests that he is only referring to Black men. This was a practice all too common at that time. Nevertheless, the spirit of the statement applies to all Black people regardless of gender identification. To avoid annihilation, African American’s must become and remain knowledgeable of their history, learn the lessons from the past, and be informed and encouraged by the past to make the world a better place than it was inherited. Researching, learning, and sharing Black history then, would celebrate and commemorate the struggles and accomplishments of Black people during Negro History Week, which would later be renamed and extended to Black History Month through organic grassroots efforts in the 1960s.
In February, National Freedom Day kicks off Black History Month. Viewing Black History Month in the context of freedom focuses the month and its activities on the past as well as calling for African Americans to continue the struggle to achieve, maintain, and protect freedom. Viewing freedom, individually and collectively, as being treated with human respect and dignity as well as having a quality of life and material conditions befitting a human necessitates Black people thinking about power in real and practical terms. As Amos Wilson asserts,
If our study of Black history is merely an exercise in feeling good about ourselves, then we will die feeling good. We must look at the lessons that history teaches us. We must understand the tremendous value of the study of history for the re-gaining of power. If our education is not about gaining real power, we are being miseducated and misled and we will die ‘educated’ and misled.
Wilson understands the role and function of education broadly, and history specifically, as a vehicle towards the attainment of power. Not in the context of “power-over” but in pursuit of “power to-do.” Power and creative agency, conceptualizes a process whereby Black people harness their social capacity to reimagine, recreate, and rebuild a new society where freedom is attained, enjoyed, and protected. The study of Black history, then, must be instructive and functional. In other words, framing Black History Month in the context of freedom focuses the month’s activities on advancing Black interests through a review of history to improve the future. This sentiment is captured in the Akan concept of Sankofa, which means to return to the source for lessons, motivation, and inspiration to move forward. In the African American experience, moving forward is a long walk to freedom while Black peoples individual and collective eyes remain on the prize. Here, the prize is freedom.
In 1976 President Gerald Ford officially recognized Black History Month in the United States. Both National Freedom Day and Black History Month began as organic Black grassroots movements valuing both freedom and history and ultimately led to American presidents officially recognizing them. Regardless of the socio-political and historical context informing Truman and Ford’s actions, African people, and people of African ancestry in the United States have compelled the United States to acknowledge and commemorate the Black freedom struggle. Black History Month’s dual objective, then, is the commemoration of freedom struggles in the past while also encouraging and empowering Black people presently to continue the struggle for and protect the freedoms of the people for the future.
- Mitch Kachun, “‘A Beacon to Oppressed Peoples Everywhere’: Major Richard R. Wright Sr., National Freedom Day, and the Rhetoric of Freedom in the 1940s.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Jully, 2004, Vol. 128, No. 3 (July, 2004), pp. 279-306. ↩
- Hanes Walton, Jr., Roosevelt Green, Jr., Willie E. Johnson, Kenneth A. Jordan, Leslie Burl McLemore, C. Vernon Gray and Marion Orr, “R. R. Wright, Congress, President Truman and the First National Public African American Holiday: National Freedom Day.” PS: Political Science and Politics, December 1991, Vol. 24, No. 4, pp. 685-688. ↩