Why Black History Month?

How a different perspective on our nation's past can help improve present-day race relations
February 10, 2014

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The politics of denial have defined how we think about race in America, which is why Black History Month remains an important catalyst for dialogue nearly 40 years after it began, says Peniel Joseph, professor of history and director of Tufts’ Center for the Study of Race and Democracy. “We need to think about why segregation and discrimination continue in 2014. Dialogue is the only way to improve this.”

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education decision, which ended legal segregation in public schools, and the 50th of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, nationality, religion and gender. But problems of access and fairness continue, Joseph contends, in part because we don’t fully understand the history.

“Establishing this history and raising awareness of it is why Black History Month is so important,” he says. “It shouldn’t just be February—it should be every month, an ongoing dialogue. But the month is an important reminder to think about our past from a wide range of perspectives, and to see our present as the outcome of these multiple histories.”

“Until we have a fully integrated intellectual canon, without racial or gender segregation, we will always need things like Black History Month,” says Peniel Joseph. Photo: Kelvin MaBlack History Month reminds us to shift our gaze, Joseph says, to view the story of America through a different lens. Instead of being relegated to the margins, black Americans become the main players.

“Because of America’s racial history, this is an important shift of perspective,” Joseph says. “Until we have a fully integrated intellectual canon, without racial or gender segregation, we will always need things like Black History Month, just as we have Women’s History Month, to serve as correctives to a mainstream history.”

It’s also important to encourage young people to know and appreciate their history. Part of the problem with black history, Joseph says, is that it’s not being taught widely or comprehensively at the secondary school level. Black History Month, he says, helps reinforce why it should be taught, because everything from slavery to civil rights has been critical to the evolution of American democracy.

America has only confronted these hard issues when forced to: during the March on Washington, violence in Selma, Ala., and the race riots in Watts in the early 1960s, says Joseph, the author of Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama (2010) and a biography of the black activist Stokely Carmichael, due out in March.

Barack Obama’s election ironically amplified the problem of Americans wanting to believe that problems of race would just solve themselves. His election seemed to prove that integration into the mainstream could come naturally, Joseph says. Still, the Obama presidency has introduced young people to some of the dynamics of race and has inspired thinking about how race matters in a positive way, he notes.

The History of Black History

The origins of Black History Month go back to 1926, when Carter G. Woodson, an African American historian and journalist, started what was called Negro History Week to coordinate the teaching of black history in public schools. A decade earlier, in 1915, Woodson, known as the Father of Black History, had established the Association for the Study of the Negro Life and History to illuminate the accomplishments of African Americans; the organization is now called the Association for the Study of African American Life and History.

“He used history to fortify African Americans who were experiencing discrimination, but also to present a counter-narrative to scientific theories of racism and social Darwinism,” Joseph says, theories that defined African Americans as a different species and lesser human beings. “Slavery not only said that blacks are subhuman—it also said they don’t have a history; they don’t have a past.”

In 1976, during the American bicentennial, President Gerald R. Ford officially established Black History Month.

“This recognition was important because America was founded not only on racial slavery, but also on ideologies of racial oppression that defined who could be a citizen and who could not,” Joseph says. “These frame the way in which we in America think about citizenship and identity. Today it frames how we think about who is incarcerated and who’s not. And in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it influenced how we thought about who was getting lynched and who was not,” he says.

The Tufts Center for the Study of Race and Democracy encourages dialogue about America’s multiple histories among students as well as in Tufts’ surrounding communities. The center, located at 23 Bellevue St., behind the Granoff Family Hillel Center on Tufts’ Medford/Somerville campus, uses interdisciplinary scholarship and public symposia to get people talking.

“We want white students, African Americans, Latinos, gays, straights, immigrants, people who are physically challenged, from different economic backgrounds—we want all of them here and talking about their experiences, the inclusion and exclusion—that are the constructs of our democracy,” he says.

Gail Bambrick can be reached at gail.bambrick@tufts.edu.