What Black History Month Means to Me

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), February 15, 2004 | Go to article overview

What Black History Month Means to Me


Byline: THE WASHINGTON TIMES

"If Black History Month is to play any meaningful part in black advancement, we should emphasize the positive communal experiences rather than the spirit-crushing setbacks," writes John McWhorter, linguistics professor and author of "Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America."

Mr. McWhorter offers his assessment of Black History Month (BHM, my acronym) in "A New Black History." We won't find black Americans' inspiring history in speeches about slavery as our defining moment or in the disingenuous rants of self-styled leaders preaching a gospel of blame-whites-for-your-troubles. We'll find it in stories of ordinary Americans - and extraordinary ones - who accomplished great things long before the civil rights movement.

The seeds of BHM were planted by a black educator and historian named Carter G. Woodson. Born in 1875 during Reconstruction, Woodson lived under the most oppressive conditions. Blacks today couldn't imagine it, no matter how hard they tried. Yet, Woodson rose to the top like cream, despite the hardships he faced. One of nine children raised in a desperately poor family, he couldn't attend formal schooling because he had to work to help support the family.

After years of working and going to school when he could, Woodson received a B.A. in literature and became a teacher. He later traveled throughout Europe and Asia and studied at the Sorbonne University in Paris. Woodson received his M.A. from the University of Chicago in 1908 and a Ph.D. in history from Harvard University in 1912. All accomplished without race preferences.

In 1926, Woodson came up with the idea of "Negro History Week" after he noticed the absence of a history of black Americans in textbooks. He believed the omission was intentional and set out to highlight the achievements of blacks in America. Although Negro History Week gained mass appeal in the 1960s, it wasn't until 1976 that it was expanded into BHM.

Woodson's achievements are remarkable for anyone of any color at any time. But he accomplished all this as a black man living under the grueling conditions of Jim Crow. Did he gripe and complain? Most likely. Did he let it stop him from achieving excellence? No.

In contrast to Woodson, James Weldon Johnson, also born during Reconstruction, grew up in a middle-class household, and his interest in music was encouraged. …

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