In 1976, as a part of the United States Bicentennial Celebration, African American or Black History Month (AAHM) was recognized by the federal government as an annual occasion, in the words of then President Gerald Ford, to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”
AAHM’s forerunner, Negro History Week (NHW), was established in 1926 by historian Carter G. Woodson and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. Observed in the second week of February, coinciding with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, February 12 and 14, respectively, dates since the late 19th century held in honor in black communities, NHW focused on advancing the teaching and study in public schools of the history of American blacks.
I am a 62-year old African American educated in St. Louis public schools. I remember the dearth of system-authorized black history instruction; a glaring deficiency addressed in content and assuaged in spirit by the committed efforts of my nuclear and extended families and my elementary school teachers, all who, in collaboration conscious or unawares, fulfilled my grandmother Audia’s proclamation, “Paul, to know yourself, you must know your people’s history.” Hence, I have an elemental, perhaps eternal affinity for AAHM. More expansively, for America – which, I believe, has still to incarnate the dream of Langston Hughes, who, speaking for all peoples, native and immigrant, white and black, said, “O, let America be America again; the land that never has been yet, and yet must be; the land where every man is free” – to know herself, she must know her black people’s history.
Still, as a pluralist who rejoices in our racial diversity and as an inclusivist who equally relishes our common humanity, my inner inquisitor wonders, worries about AAHM. How fair is it to the concept of our universal humanness to dedicate any period – a day, a week, a month, a year or more – to the history of any one race? And how fair is it to relegate the study of black history to any period when my people’s history, a vivid, inerasable thread in the rich tapestry of our national being and becoming, is American history? (My aunt, Evelyn Hoard Roberts, a college English professor, so cherishing the idea, the ideal of interdisciplinary and interracial, in other words shared, not separate approaches to education, in 1977, published American Literature and the Arts Including Black Expression [my emphasis].)
Yet, as Langston’s prophecy remains to be fulfilled, I continue to pray in his words: O, let my land be a land where Liberty Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath, But opportunity is real, and life is free, Equality is in the air we breathe.
As I believe that true equality is achieved in real part when all of us know the histories of each of us, I will commemorate and celebrate AAHM.