Eighty-seven years ago — when about half of households owned an automobile, women’s suffrage was new and black Americans were still terrorized by lynching, especially in the South — black historian Carter G. Woodson had a simple but powerful idea: Designate a week to celebrate the contributions that black Americans had made to their country. Woodson chose the second week of February to commemorate the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.
Negro History Week, as it was known, was an important development for its time. Back then, official history barely acknowledged the presence of black Americans, while popular culture actively diminished their humanity. In such a hostile landscape, black Americans desperately needed an acknowledgement of their patriotism, enterprise and ingenuity to foster self-confidence. Knowledge is power.
Decades later, the landscape has changed in such profound ways that Woodson would hardly recognize it. Automobiles are ubiquitous; women voters usually outnumber men in national elections; and a coalition that included unmarried women and black, Latino and Asian-American voters powered the nation’s first black president to re-election last year.
Despite those tectonic, ground-shaking developments, Woodson’s commemoration — now Black History Month — lingers. Yet it is an artifact that, ironically, works to minimize the myriad ways in which black Americans’ accomplishments are part of the national mosaic. In the age of Obama, do we need such a separate and unequal celebration?
Consider: Twenty years from now, will classroom discussions of President Obama be restricted to February? Or does the first black president belong to the broader pantheon of presidents, his legacy discussed alongside those of others? Will a future Barack Obama Presidential Library be a site of commemorations only during the shortest month of the year?
If it is absurd to imagine confining Obama to Black History Month, then it ought to be apparent that it is equally nonsensical to promote the study of Crispus Attucks, Elijah McCoy, Sojourner Truth, Charles Drew, Dorie Miller and the Tuskegee Airmen for only 28 days. The inventions, the patriotism, the industry and the adventurousness of black Americans — soldiers, cowboys, pioneers, engineers — are part and parcel of American history, not some footnote.