Returning to the Roots of Black History Month: Part II

This is part two of a two-part series about the debate over Black History Month, which considers its origins, its role in our society, and its future in our community. Part one can be found here.

After more than forty years of celebrating Black History Month in this country, a years-long national debate lingers on whether we should “retire or reboot” the annual commemoration.

Amid recent attacks on Black History by conservative thinkers in our society, University of Tennessee history professor Brandon Winford believes that we should return to the roots of Black History Month.

“Black history week and later month were a part of Woodson’s pioneering efforts,” Winford explained, referring to Dr. Carter Woodson, as written in Winford's paper on the origins of Black History Month linked below. “He recognized that history was a great way to challenge dominant narratives, particularly when it came to white supremacy, racism, black inferiority, and notions that African Americans had not contributed to the history of our nation and our world.”

After establishing the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History and the Journal of Negro History in 1916 and 1917, respectively, Woodson and other Black historians sought to transform how we understood African Americans in the world.

A decade later, against the grain of Jim Crow, Woodson launched Negro history week around the birthdates of the Great Emancipator Abraham Lincoln and the standard bearer of Black freedom, Frederick Douglass as a week of celebration of Black history, but Woodson believed that Black history should be incorporated beyond that week into everyday life, according to Winford.

He believed that Black history week and later month should be about exposing the masses to Black History and that, in doing so, Black history would serve as a way to incorporate African Americans fully into American society and the broader narrative, Winford said.

With Woodson’s primary objective—combatting racism and white supremacy—still incomplete,

Winford believes that we should remain committed to celebrating Black History Month in February and teaching Black History each day of the year.

University of Tennessee professor Dorian McCoy, an associate department head in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies, agrees.

“Black History should not be relegated to 28 days out of 365,” McCoy asserted. “Black History, and every other identity, women’s history, Hispanic-Latino history, Native American history, LGBTQ+ history, should be imbedded in our history each and every day.”

“When we look at Black History as it was taught in our public schools for so long, it is what Norah Jones phrased as a ‘sanitized history.’ We’ve painted a history for Black people, in particular, where we’ve focused on Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rosa Parks—the Mount Rushmore of Black History, and we say positive things about them,” he said, but we avoid the “messiness” of the past.

“In U.S. society, we don’t want to grapple with that messiness because that brings up the past,” McCoy explained, noting that Martin Luther King, Jr. taught many of the tenets of what came to be known as Critical Race Theory, including connecting capitalism to slavery, advocating equity for all and fighting against classism and reminding us that, in the end, “we have to grapple with the messiness of our history so that history doesn’t repeat itself.”

In the end, both McCoy and Winford agreed that we should return to the roots of Black history to combat today’s persistent racism and injustice.

Winford Black History Month Origins
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