The Political Origins of Black History Month

Carter Godwin Woodson

Has Black History Month run its course? Every year conversations take place weighing the significance of Black History Month. Assertions such as, “Black history is just world history and should not be confined to a month,” become commonplace. Others say it has become too commercialized—reduced to things like celebratory avatars of Sojourner Truth or Carter G. Woodson adorning the webpage of some popular search engine. While some concerns are valid, others are thin and ahistorical, often failing to grapple with the original political intent of this annual observance. For Carter G. Woodson, the political origins of Black History Month (originally Negro History Week) was about re-articulating the stories of Black people so as to achieve a new narration of what it means to be human altogether, something other than the negation of Black life. Woodson believed that it is the stories we tell ourselves, about who we are, that motivate and demotivate our behaviors. These stories shape how we can think. speak. and be among the living.

Speaking on the theme of “Democracy and the Man Far Down,” Carter G. Woodson addressed his fraternity, Omega Psi Phi, at their ninth annual meeting in December of 1920. The ending of WWI and the race riots following the soldiers’ return surely shaped Woodson’s thinking on the topic. The Red Summer of 1919, in which several outbreaks of racially-motivated mob violence directed toward Black Americans spread across the country, was a major turning point in Black social and political life. Woodson, like many African Americans, questioned whether this country would ever recognize Blacks as full citizens. The fraternity was moved to action by Woodson’s speech, voting to launch a national initiative called Negro History and Literature Week, which built on the work Woodson had been doing through his Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH). The week was celebrated with great success in April of 1921.

Woodson, however, eventually decided that the program would be more effective if facilitated through the ASNLH. The name was changed to “Negro History Week” and celebrated for the first time in February of 1926. The ASNLH had a more expansive membership base; and most importantly, since it was not an all-male fraternity, women could take on an active role in its planning. African American schoolteachers (not just university professors), moreover, were a core base of Woodson’s organization. They were the constituents who turned this initiative into a grassroots effort, largely made possible because of the close ties between leadership of Black teacher associations and Woodson’s organization. For instance, Mary McLeod Bethune was president of the National Association of Teachers in Colored Schools and a very active member of Woodson’s ASNLH, eventually becoming its president in 1936. Negro History Week became iconic. The celebration was almost universal in Black segregated schools by the late 1930s.

Woodson understood Negro History Week to be responding to a tightly-woven web of anti-black curricular violence and the manipulation of Black education by white philanthropists and education leaders. He recognized a clear relationship between these educational dynamics and the violence that African Americans experienced in their everyday lives. In publicizing the activities of the first Negro History Week, Woodson wrote the following:

A Negro is passed on the street and is shoved off in the mud; he complains or strikes back and is lynched as a desperado who attacked a gentleman…And what if he is handicapped, segregated, or lynched? According to our education and practice, if you kill one of the group, the world goes on just as well or better, for the Negro is nothing, has never been anything, and never will be anything but a menace to civilization.

Underlying Negro History Week was a conceptual claim that “official” curricula of schools and society structured the precariousness of Black life. Acts of violence performed on Black bodies were behaviors demonstrating a social competence of the modern world and its canons of knowledge. Thus, Negro History Week was not simply about the increased circulation of facts about Black life and culture. Elaborate presentations about “The Negro Firsts” (first Black lawyer, first Black college graduate, first Black poet, etc.) was not its primary objective.

Certainly, there was a benefit to increasing the world’s inventory of knowledge on Black achievements; Woodson, however, always articulated the heart of Negro History Week to be about addressing the relationship between the physical violence Black people experienced in the material world and the ways this violent subjugation was mapped epistemologically. “There would be no lynching if it did not start in the schoolroom,” Woodson once wrote. Human history, as presented in official school curricula, narrated Black life as a representation of “human beings of a lower order” —no culture, no historical achievement, no capacity to reason. They/we were unthinking, uncultured, ahistorical. Curricula provided the historical justification and authoritative knowledge as to the lynchability (so to speak) of the Negro. Nearly thirty years as a schoolteacher, a master’s degree from the University of Chicago, graduate courses at The Sorbonne (University of Paris), and a PhD in history from Harvard all came to convince Woodson of the necessity for new protocols of knowledge; new stories and semantics for humanity (Black people especially) to read and know the world differently.

Here lied the dilemma. The schoolroom had a critical impact on the direction and fate of Black life. Yet even Woodson, with all of his professional experience and intellectual pedigree, was alienated from the formal decision-making processes shaping Black education. The issue was not just the curriculum in schools, but also the manipulation of Black education by white philanthropists. White educational leaders controlled all of the structural aspects of Black schooling, giving very little power or influence to Black educators and scholars who chose to think independently of white interests.

It’s no coincidence that Negro History Week emerged when Woodson and the ASNLH became increasingly at odds with top white philanthropists and educational reformers. While his organization received white philanthropic funds in its early years, he eventually became blacklisted among them by 1930. His outspoken critiques of their paternalism and his commitment to Black self-determination were irreconcilable with their demands. His rebuke of their meddling in Black education on the African continent marked him as an impediment to what they called “interracial cooperation.” Perhaps the writing was on the wall when Woodson chose to leave Howard University in 1921 after continuous conflict with the white university president, Stanley Durkee (a man Woodson believed to be less qualified than all of the Black professors he tormented and surveilled). Thus, Negro History Week emerged from outside of the dominant educational sphere, even in its attempt to combine counter-hegemonic knowledge, new learning aesthetics, and more expansive ideas about Black political life for the world to learn from.

Negro History Week celebrations were implemented in diverse fashion, spanning the regional and ideological range of Black life. But, at its best, the initiative was a part of a larger effort to re-articulate human history beyond the clenching grip of white myths that overdetermined modern understandings of what it means to be human, who is and is not human to one degree or another. We live and exist in a violent paradigm of structured knowledge. Negro History Week, like the expansive range of Woodson’s work and writing, was in pursuit of an epistemic break from this violent paradigm. It set out to establish a new structure of knowledge that would help initiate humanity out of this current state of Black narrative condemnation (to borrow from Sylvia Wynter).

So—when discussions commence on whether or not Black History Month has run its course, perhaps we should consider its political origins and the antagonisms that motivated its intent. We might ask ourselves: have we reached an epistemic break (or shift in the orders of knowledge) whereby Black people are no longer understood or “felt” to be the symbolic representation of the antithesis of humanity? Do we live within, and operate from, a paradigm of knowledge that tells the world that Black people are in possession of the same human potentiality as non-Black racialized people? If these questions cannot be answered in the affirmative, perhaps a more useful deliberation would be to consider what it could look like to reclaim these critical questions for our Black History Month praxis.

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Jarvis R. Givens

Jarvis R. Givens is an assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the Suzanne Young Murray assistant professor at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. As an interdisciplinary historian, Givens' research falls at the intersection of the history of American education, 19th and 20th century African American history, and critical theories of race and schooling. His first book, 'Schooling in Forbidden Fields: Carter G. Woodson and the Demands of Black Education' (forthcoming, Harvard University Press), analyzes Carter G. Woodson's (1875-1950) critiques of the American school, the new curricular materials he developed, and how ordinary teachers put his ideas into practice during Jim Crow.

Comments on “The Political Origins of Black History Month

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    Love this piece !

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    Thank you for such an insightful piece. I am going to the internet to purchase and read your first book.

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