Black History IS American History

Jonetta’s Take

Carter G. Woodson. Image Courtesy of Ancella Bickley Collection, West Virginia State Archives

I fell out of love with Black History Month, as a separate event, decades ago.  I make that confession not to cast aspersion on famed scholar and historian Carter G. Woodson, who created Negro History Week. Actually, I celebrated the fact that last year the National Park Service, spurred by District residents in the Shaw neighborhood, including Alexander Padro, dedicated a $1 million memorial park in Woodson’s honor, replete with a bronze sculpture. His former Ninth Street NW home has been declared a national historic site and is under renovation.

As the founder and director of the Association for Negro Life and History, Woodson established the second week in February to highlight contributions of blacks to the United States. He selected that time to capitalize on the birthdays of President Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, a former slave, abolitionist, and recorder of deeds for the District of Columbia. Woodson also pushed for public schools across the nation to teach “Negro” history. The US Department of Education embraced that effort. Eventually the week grew into a month-long commemoration and teach-in with nearly every state joining in the celebration. 

So, what’s my beef?  

The role African-Americans played in this country’s development isn’t some appendix, some footnote to be amplified once a year. Further, blacks should not be relegated to the sidelines of American history. As Jim Sleeper, author of “Liberal Racism,” wrote, “the descendants of slaves are in some ways the most American of us all.” 

Truth be told, even before 1926, Negro History Week should have been declared an anachronism. Blacks were already key players in the physical, cultural, and political infrastructure of American society. They had been the foundational backbone of the economy. They had fought on the frontlines of several wars: the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and World War I. They helped construct the White House, the US Capitol, and other government buildings in the nation’s capital. (Recently, while in New Orleans, I was reminded that African-Americans helped construct that city’s French Quarter, which isn’t strange since Benjamin Banneker completed the work of another Frenchman, Pierre L’Enfant.) Then as now, their music, dance, and theatrical performances comprised the core of what is largely considered the original American culture. More important, through their great personal sacrifices they extended the boundaries of democracy, solidifying the vision of the country’s founders in ways no others have done.

Nevertheless there are those who choose to confine their remarkable achievements to a mere month of rote recitation, spouting the names of a few, albeit well-respected, individuals over and over: Sojourner Truth, Harriett Tubman, Madam C. J. Walker, W.E.B. DuBois, George Washington Carver, Booker T. Washington, Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. 

Don’t act like what I am saying is foreign to you. 

Deliberately or not, that repetition has perpetuated the view that blacks have made a minor mark on the American landscape. Of course there has been and continues to be a plethora of inventors, intellectuals, architects, managers, and corporate leaders like those at McDonald’s, Xerox, American Express, and yes, Time Warner, who have since contributed to American exceptionalism.

But far too many blacks do not see themselves as owners of this country. They have allowed themselves to be portrayed as victims, as freeloaders, as beggars, although in this 21st century they have more than one trillion-dollars in purchasing power. I vigorously rebel against that depiction. I refuse to accept the part of some insignificant sideline player, only worthy of a 28- or 29-day mention. That is an insult to my great-grandparents, my grandparents, my parents, the men and women who lived in communities where I grew up or where I worked, people who ignored the brutal beatings they sometimes received as they made America the great country it is.

What’s more, I am no fan of balkanization. Women’s History Month and Hispanic History Month do not receive my embrace. Slicing and dicing our society or narrative promote and sustain division. It exacerbates racial tensions and the kind of venomous rhetoric that fills some national, and local, political campaigns.

The indisputable fact is this: black history is American history. If there are folks who have not come to realize that, that’s their problem, not mine. I share Sleeper’s analysis that “the best of the civic culture which the early civil rights movement tried to embrace and redeem presumes not that our racial and ethnic story lives and affinities should disappear. But that they should not prevail as the central organizing principles of our lives … Full citizenship in the American republic entails a commitment to join in a race- transcendent human experiment.” With that as the goal, isn’t it time to end Black History Month? Isn’t it time to ensure that all stories from all peoples, from all Americans, are written into a single, accurate, and inclusive cultural narrative?

jonetta rose barras is a freelance writer.