• Vânia Penha-Lopes


Updated: Feb 5

Some 15 years ago, a U.S.-born student of Dominican descent proclaimed in class, “I think it is racist to have a Black History Month. Why should Blacks have a month when there is no White History Month?”

I explained to him and all present that the celebration of African Americans was born out of the need to highlight their many contributions to a country that for centuries had denied their worth. I don’t remember whether I told him that there was also a Hispanic Heritage Month, but I do remember I didn’t give him the cynical answer that any month of the year could be called White History Month.

February 1 marks the beginning of Black History Month in the United States. The idea for such a celebration was conceived by Dr. Carter G. Woodson (1875-1950), the first Negro to graduate with a Ph.D. in history from Harvard University (having first graduated from the prestigious University of Chicago), at the precocious age of 27. I think it would be fair to say that Dr. Woodson was a pioneer in African diasporic studies if we consider the fact that he focused on the study of Negroes’ contributions to society. His many academic accomplishments include his foundation, in 1916, of the Journal of Negro History, which is still in circulation under the name Journal of African American History, and the publication of over 15 books on the topic. For all his deeds, Dr. Woodson is regarded as the Father of Black History.

Dr. Woodson’s dedication to the study of African American history had a very practical purpose: to let the whole country know how much it owed to enslaved Africans and their descendants. It was in that spirit that, in 1926, he suggested the creation of a “Negro History Week”—the second week of February, when Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass had been born. Dr. Woodson knew and we know that human beings, especially children, need to build their self-esteem in order to succeed in life. It is very hard to do so if all we hear about our group is failure. We need to know our history to strengthen ourselves against words and actions that aim to bring us down.

Let us not forget that, by then, it had been three decades since the U.S. Supreme Court established legal racial segregation in the entire territory, commonly known as the “separate but equal” doctrine. Only racial separation was anything but “equal.” Negro children in the South, when they studied at all, were routinely yanked out of school come harvest time in order to toil the fields alongside their sharecropping families. Most Negroes were illiterate; those who managed to get an education were often underemployed. Negroes were prevented from voting with all types of subterfuges; those who defied that risked paying with their lives. Negroes were terrorized by the Ku Klux Klan, an association founded by poor southern Whites who feared economic competition from former slaves, which operated with the blessing, or at least the blind eye, of the authorities, a number of whom were Klan members themselves. Finally, Negroes—men, women, and children—were lynched with impunity, for lynching was not a crime. In sum, the Supreme Court decision was a racist decision put in practice socially, economically, and politically for 58 years; when it was overturned in 1954 by another Supreme Court decision, it continued to be practiced in fact. Sustaining that practice is the ideology that Africans and their descendants are not quite human and, thus, are less intelligent and less deserving of the proverbial “piece of the pie.”

Only in 1970, when the civil rights movement had turned more radical, did February become Black History Month, thanks to the efforts of Black students and professors from Kent State University. The whole country began to celebrate it in 1976. As for Hispanic History Month, it also started as a week in 1968, created by President Johnson; it was elevated to an entire month 20 years later, during President Reagan’s tenure.

At least during the shortest month of the year, we should remind ourselves that it is impossible to think of the United States without all that Negroes/colored people/Blacks/Afro-Americans/African Americans have done to build it. I am talking physically (enslaved persons built the White House, for example) and in every cultural aspect, not only art and sports: a Black doctor discovered the Rh blood factor; a Black scientist designed the traffic light; a Black physicist made possible Edison’s invention of the light bulb; a Black inventor got the whole country to eat peanut butter. Black History Month is for us—not only school children—to go Google all their names and those of many others. Because 2020 is a leap year, we get to have one more day to do so.

To close: I am a Woodson fellow. I spent 1996-98 at the Carter G. Woodson Institute for Afro-American and African Studies, located at the University of Virginia, as a predoctoral fellow. It was that scholarship which allowed me to finish my dissertation and start my professional career, and for that I am thankful and proud.

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