The Historical Record

February is Black History Month, and the controversy surrounding a separate recognition of the history of African Americans is with us again. Throughout this month, schools, the news media, museums, businesses and other institutions will highlight the, legacy and heroes and heroines of black America. Alabama Public Television, to cite just one example, has a number of fine documentaries and dramatic shows about black people and black history running during February.

Black History Month itself is the legacy of Carter G. Woodson, a Virginian by birth, who rose from humble origins — he was, in fact, the son of former slaves — to become a nationally recognized scholar and the dean of the country’s black historians. His 1922 book, The Negro In Our History, reshaped — some would say invented — the field of black history and was for many years and through 10 editions the mostly widely used text on the subject. He organized the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History in 1915, and the following year began publication of the Journal of Negro History, which he edited until his death in 1950. His work did much to correct the inaccuracies, distortions and omissions which characterized the treatment of blacks in American historical scholarship from the 1700s to, sadly, the 1960s. And even since the 1960s, when the combination of a changing mood and a new generation of both black and white scholars helped to balance the historical ledger, many if not most of the textbooks commonly used in our schools have fallen short of telling the story of black contributions to American history in the way in which those contributions were made, which is to say as a vital, everyday part of the social fabric.

Every schoolchild learns about Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver and a handful of other “outstanding” blacks, but inadequate attention is generally paid to the historical roles of significant but uncanonized blacks and to the role of blacks as a group in society. It is for these reasons that Black History Month was necessary to begin with and has been such a success. The educational efforts put forth during February each year have greatly expanded the average person’s familiarity with and understanding of blacks, black culture, and black history.

However, it is time now to dismantle the cultural and political barriers that affect and separate Americans. Many Americans view Black History month as such a barrier. African Americans can learn much from the American Indian experience in this regard. Modern economic development by-passed the American Indian while they struggle to maintain their own separate political and cultural identity on reservations. It is past time to fully integrate black citizens and their history into American society and American history. Black history needs to be studied and understood and appreciated not just in February, but year round, and as a part of the standard body of scholarship and education.

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Originally Published: February 1994, Union Springs Facts

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