By MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)
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. Those who have no record of what their forebears have accomplished lose the inspiration which comes from the teaching of biography and history.
Carter Godwin Woodson (December 19, 1875 – April 3, 1950)
Carter Godwin Woodson was the founder of Negro History Week in 1926 which eventually became Black History Month and now African Heritage Month, African Liberation Month etc. Woodson was an African-American historian, author and journalist. He was one of the first scholars to study African-American history. He founded the Association for the Study of African-American Life and History (ASALH) on September 9, 1915 to address the lack of information on the history, culture and accomplishments of African-Americans. The organization is 99 years old in 2014 and the theme it has chosen for this year’s Black History Month is “Civil Rights in America”.
When Woodson established Negro History Week in 1926 he chose February in honour of African-American abolitionist Frederick Douglass. Woodson had attended Frederick Douglass High School in West Virginia and admired Douglass who fought his way out of slavery and wrote about his life as an enslaved African man in America. Douglass published three autobiographies, an amazing feat for a formerly enslaved African-American.
Douglass chose February 14 as his date of birth because he remembered his mother referring to him as her “little Valentine.” Like the majority of enslaved Africans the date of his birth was not documented since the White people who owned the Africans considered them property and not quite human and would sell them at whim. This happened even when a White man (owner) was the biological father of the enslaved African person.
Douglass documented February 14, 1818 as his birth date. He escaped from that “peculiar institution” (as slavery was politely termed by some White people in America) on September 3, 1838. In Canada White people politely referred to the Africans they enslaved as “servants for life.” Douglass famously said: “Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have the exact measure of the injustice and wrong which will be imposed on them.”
He reached the end of submitting when he was 20 years old while many lived their entire lives submitting.
In 1915, when Woodson decided that he would educate Africans in America about their true history and not what they had been force fed by White people, he published “The Education Of The Negro Prior To 1861 A History of the Education of the Colored People of the United States from the Beginning of Slavery to the Civil War”. In the preface of his book Woodson acknowledged that Africans in American went to great lengths to educate themselves: “the accounts of the successful strivings of Negroes for enlightenment under most adverse circumstances read like beautiful romances of a people in an heroic age.”
The following year, 1916, Woodson began publishing “The Journal of Negro History” which is now “The Journal of African-American History” (JAAH). The Journal’s website (http://www.jaah.org/) states: “Now in its 98th volume, The Journal of African-American History publishes the latest research on the history of U. S. reparations movements, the life and legacy of Malcolm X, African-American women in slavery and freedom, and other significant topics.”
Woodson continued to educate African-Americans about their history through his books and journal (which was published four times each year) from 1916 to the present.
Woodson made the documentation and promotion of the history of Africans his life’s work. He wrote and published 19 books about African history and culture. His most popular book is The Mis-education of the Negro which was published in 1933 where he addresses a problem that plagues our community to this day:
“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.”
Woodson was also a regular contributor to the publication of another African who was very passionate about educating Africans about their history. He frequently wrote articles for the weekly publication “Negro World” which was owned by The Honourable Marcus Mosiah Garvey. The two men shared similar values and thoughts on the condition of and how to improve the lot of Africans.
In February 1926, Woodson decided that devoting an entire week to the celebration of the achievements of African-Americans was another way of educating African-Americans about their history. On February 7, 1926 Woodson launched the first “Negro History Week” and the rest is history. The one week celebration became an entire month of celebration 50 years later in 1976. Today, 98 years after Woodson initiated the one-week celebration and recognition of the history of Africans, there remains a need for this month of acknowledgement as our history and achievements continue to be ignored and marginalized in the curriculum and the history books.
In Canada the celebration of Black History Month began in the 1950s when the Canadian Negro Women’s Association introduced the celebration in Toronto. In 1979 the Ontario government officially recognized Black History Month because of the tireless advocacy of the Ontario Black History Society. In 1995 Jean Augustine brought forward a motion to recognize Black History Month nationally before Canada’s Parliament. Augustine who, at the time, was a Member of Parliament serving as Parliamentary Secretary, was successful in gaining unanimous support for the motion. The House of Commons declared a national Black History Month, which went into effect in 1996. Black History Month is now recognized across Canada. However we can name the month African Heritage Month, African History Month, African Liberation Month etc., as we practice the second Kwanzaa principle Kujichagulia (Self-determination.)