While flipping channels this weekend, I came across a cable television talk show called Charlamagne & Friends, tuning in just as the black host was asking his three black guests about February being Black History Month.
“The shortest month of the year,” one of the male guests mumbled dejectedly.
It was the second time in two days I’d heard someone say disparagingly that the time set aside on the calendar to focus on African-American history and culture just happened to be the month with the fewest days.
I’ve actually had young people in schools ask me, “Why did they give us the shortest month in the year?”
“They who?” I usually ask in return. “Who do you think gave us Black History Month?”
Obviously we have not done a good enough job of teaching black history during this month or any other if most youngsters today don’t know how the observance of African-American heritage came about.
So it is appropriate, especially this week, to do a little educating on the subject. You see, this particular week in February is what was the original Negro History Week as proclaimed by noted educator, writer and historian Carter G. Woodson in 1926.
Woodson, who in 1915 founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, did not randomly pick those seven days in the year’s shortest month to commemorate the struggles and achievements of black people.
As the son of former slaves, he chose a month that had significance to the struggle for freedom because it was the month in which two great Americans who helped bring an end to slavery were born.
Negro History Week encompassed the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln (Feb. 12) and Frederick Douglass, the former slave, abolitionist and orator (Feb. 14). Actually the exact date of Douglass’ birth in February is not known, but he celebrated his birthday on the 14th.
The commemoration was later expanded from a week to include the entire month.
Woodson, the second African-American to earn a Ph.D from Harvard, had another connection to Douglass, the great freedom fighter: He had graduated from Douglass High School in West Virginia and later became its principal before going on to teach at other public schools and Howard University.
He strongly believed that people ought to know their history — all of it: the good and the bad, the joyful and the painful.
“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,” Woodson said.
That is something I, too, believe, and it is what I tell those who invariably ask this time of year, “Why is there a Black History Month? How would you feel if there were a White History Month?”
To that second question, I usually respond, “There are 12.” For the most part, this country’s history, as recited in our schools and colleges, has been its “white” history.
Had there been adequate representation of African-Americans in history books, there would have been no need to set aside a week or a month or any other time to call attention to their authentic stories and their long, trying journey in this sometimes inhospitable land.
The truth is there wasn’t a needed presence in history books 88 years ago when Woodson gave birth to Negro History Week, and there still isn’t today.
So, for the foreseeable future, we will continue to take time during this month to remember the past, to acknowledge those who came before us, to celebrate the lives of those who helped make the future better for all of us. At the same time, we honor our contemporary heroes who continue to carry on the struggle for justice and human rights.
Every person, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender or religion, ought to embrace that idea rather than resent it.