The roots of Black History Month in our nation are nearly a century old, but at a moment when some people are seeking to block what children can be taught about the intersection of Black history and American history, its existence right now is as necessary as ever.
Dr. Carter G. Woodson, the son of former slaves, a pioneering Harvard-trained historian, and the founder of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, created Negro History Week in 1926. At the time he was alarmed because so few people, White or Black, knew anything at all about Black people’s achievements.
Dr. Woodson understood just how critical it was to claim our rightful place in the history books and teach future generations about the great thinkers and role models who came before us. As he said then: “Those who have no record of what their forebears have accomplished lose the inspiration which comes from the teaching of biography and history.”
Negro History Week was originally celebrated during the second week of February to coincide with Frederick Douglass’s and Abraham Lincoln’s birthdays. Eventually the single week grew into Black History Month, but through the years the celebration’s symbolism and importance remained the same.
Dr. Woodson was especially concerned about the “mis-education” of Black children from their earliest ages — “The thought of the inferiority of the Negro is drilled into him in almost every class he enters and in almost every book he studies” — and the cumulative effects it could have. He wrote: “When you control a man’s thinking you do not 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 will 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 back door, he will cut one for his special benefit. His education makes it necessary.” He believed teaching children about Black history and Black accomplishments was a crucial corrective step.
We now understand the wisdom behind teaching not just Black children but all children Black history in our increasingly multicultural nation and world. Black, Native American, Latino, Asian American, LGBTQ, immigrant, and women’s history are all American history. None of our children can afford miseducation and ignorance about the rainbow of others around them. And none of our children should ever believe their own history and existence are marginal, unimportant, inferior, or only worthy of the back door. It is beyond shameful that in 2022 teaching children the truth about American history is still viewed and treated by some as a subversive and illegal act.
Harvard Graduate School of Education professor Jarvis R. Givens, author of the 2021 book Fugitive Pedagogy: Carter G. Woodson and the Art of Black Teaching, places Dr. Woodson as part of a long continuum that began during slavery and continues into our time. He recently told the Harvard Gazette “the tradition of what some might call anti-racist teaching today is something that Black teachers had to engage in because it was a matter of life and death,” and explained that part of the legacy of Black educators throughout history had been uplifting their students “and helping them imagine a world that had yet to exist, but one that they could strive for.” He added: “Teachers will be vital for any vision of justice we might try to build, create, and enact in the world around us.”
This remains true for today’s teachers and I hope all teachers and all adults will follow Dr. Woodson’s example and teach the truth about Black history and American history this month and every month.
Marian Wright Edelman is Founder and President Emerita of the Children’s Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to childrensdefense.org.