On the Importance of Black History Month
(Pictured above: Elizabeth Eckford of the Little Rock Nine (1957-58)
“If a race has no history, if it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated.” ~ Carter Godwin Woodson (1875 – 1950)
These words prophetically written by American historian and scholar, Dr. Carter G. Woodson ring alarmist but—as shown by history--true. Dr. Woodson was deeply committed to developing Black history as a scholarly subject to be analyzed and studied as well as a subject taught both in schools and at home. Thus, Black History Month was born.
February is Black History Month in the United States. Although much of the country is blanketed under snow, traffic is stalled and schools are closed, the learning and celebrating can continue. Learning Black history and celebrating Black culture can and should continue throughout the year!
Dr. Carter G. Woodson founded Black History Month (initially Negro History week in 1926) as a time to remember, study, and celebrate the contributions, courage, and successes of the African American community in the U.S. and around the world. In his groundbreaking book, The Mis-education of the Negro (1933), Dr. Woodson notes,
“Those who have no record of what their forebears have accomplished lose the inspiration which comes from the teaching of biography and history.” ~ Carter G. Woodson
Inspiration was one of the primary reasons for Black History Month. But Dr. Woodson—a radical thinker and teacher—considered more reasons for pursuing Black History Month: freedom.
“When you control a man’s thinking, you don’t have to worry about his actions. You do not have to tell him not to stand here or go yonder. He will find his ‘proper place’ and stay in it. You do not need to send him to the back door. He will go without being told. In fact, if there is no backdoor, he will cut one for his special benefit. His education makes it necessary.”
Throughout his long career, Dr. Woodson maintained that education in one’s history is an essential component to real freedom--freeing one’s mind as well as the body. Approaching African American history as an academic subject, foundational matter or as an auto-didactic pursuit was a means of releasing African Americans from their legally- and mentally-imposed “proper place” of inferiority.
Following his original intent, here are three steps to having a meaningful Black History:
Do one of these steps every day (or week) to become a more enriched (and more learned) person by the end of the month.
Remember: Frederick Douglass (1818 – 1895)
I will unite with anyone to do right and no one to do wrong! ~ Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass was one of the great abolitionists, orators, statesmen, and scholars of the 19th century. Born into slavery, he escaped to freedom and dedicated his life to the abolition of slavery and equal rights for African Americans.
Remember that this great man was devoted to women’s rights, particularly the right to vote. Abolition and women’s suffrage were courageous, unpopular, and even dangerous positions during that time. Douglass lived under the constant threat of re-capture and returning to enslavement! Despite this threat, he continued to speak against slavery and fight for women’s rights. (Fortunately, abolitionist friends purchased Douglass’s freedom in 1846.) But the threat remained. Frederick Douglass must never be forgotten because he challenged the unjust and brutal system of slavery, challenged white people’s views of both free and enslaved Black people, and challenged the inferior status of women around the country.
Study: Learn more about Frederick Douglass
There are many different ways to learn history or to learn about a specific historical figure. One favorite is to visit the person’s birthplace, home or any place that was significant in the person’s life.
Visit the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site. Frederick Douglass (and his first and second wives) lived in this house until his death in 1895. There are original pieces of furniture, clothing, and books. And the tour is fantastic. For those who live too far away, visit the website at http://www.nps.gov/frdo/index.htm. There are a lot of fascinating information, stories, and anecdotes.
Frederick Douglass also wrote several autobiographies, including the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave (1845) and The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881). Both are excellent and easily read books through his descriptions of life as a slave are challenging. His determined escape from slavery and personal growth will leave an indelible mark on your conscience. You will not want to put them down!
One aspect of Frederick Douglass that is often neglected is his dedication to and passion for learning. At significant risk, he learned to read while he was enslaved. After his escape, he continued his studies and became one of the great authors and orators of the 19th century. He was an inspiring auto-didactic who risked everything in his pursuit of knowledge.
“Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.” ~ Frederick Douglass
Indeed, he was!
Celebrate: Make a great meal featuring African or African American specialties!
Frederick Douglass was a foodie! Many modern African American culinary specialties are handed down from the foods of the enslaved African Americans as well as foods from African peoples. This is nothing to be ashamed of or avoid. It is something to celebrate. While many of these foods are not healthy, they are the foods that on which African Americans lived and survived for hundreds of years. The “slave kitchen” had many delicious dishes that have now been refined to modern African American cuisine:
Chicken and dumplings
Cabbage with cracklings (pig skin)
Mustard or turnip greens
Sweet potato pie
It’s all delicious! Have a feast and make several of these dishes or choose just one to enjoy.
The modern African American cuisine also includes vegetarian and vegan dishes. Many African cuisines—consistent with the West African diets of our ancestors—focus on plant-based ingredients. And the soulful vegan diet is an increasingly popular cuisine for its health benefits and ethical reasons.
An excellent resource with great vegan and vegetarian recipes is the award-winning book, Afro Vegan, by chef-activist Terry Bryant.
Download a superb guide for beginning (or thinking-of-beginning) vegans at By Any Greens Necessary.
Remember. Study. Celebrate.