"The acknowledgment and acceptance of a distinctive African American culture had to await the liberation of both African Americans from racial segregation in the United States and Africans from colonization in Africa. Today there is little debate about the existence of a viable African American culture, but this has not always been the case. To justify liberation from racial segregation, many historians found it necessary to portray African Americans as quintessential Americans. It was only on the cusp of the civil rights, decolonization, and Black Power movements that historians began to define a distinct African American culture. Black historian W.E.B. Du Bois and white anthropologist Melville J. Herskovits had provided the outlines of a singular African American culture, but it took desegregation at home and decolonization abroad for historians to start filling in those outlines."
The Roots of Racial Identity
"Examining the African antecedents of African American culture provides a good opportunity for exploring the idea of race as a social and political construction. Many students see race as immutable, a fixed concept that has changed little over time. They assume that because ‘white’ historically has meant ‘good’ and ‘black’ has meant ‘evil,’ Europeans have always been biased against Africans and that racism today is just an extension of ancient practices. To combat this, we must look past contemporary perceptions of ‘Europe’ and ‘Africa.’ We need to help students understand that racial classification as a scientific concept is an 18th-century invention. The designations ‘European’ and ‘African’ for distinguishing groups of people gained relevance only in the 19th century and took on greater significance in this country than in Europe and Africa themselves. Those we think of as Germans or Italians are more likely to identify themselves as Bavarians, Rhinelanders, or Prussians or Sicilians, Sardinians, or Tuscanites. Those who call themselves Akan, Ashanti, Ewe, Igbo, Wolof, and Yoruba we simply designate as Africans. Ethnic and national identity, which includes distinctions of language and culture, historically has been more important than continental identity.
"Various strands of West African societies merged in the encounter with American society to form the African American. African Americans were held at length from the dominant society for some 350 years, rather than being absorbed into mainstream culture. The melting pot as a metaphor simply didn’t work for African Americans because they weren’t allowed into the pot. Paradoxically, African Americans had a profound influence on mainstream culture. In the South, especially, it is difficult to determine what is Southern and what is African American in speech, manner, cuisine, architecture, religion, music, dance, or folklore. The African American imprint despite being held at bay is deeply imbedded within American culture. As W.E.B. Du Bois poignantly put the question in his masterpiece The Souls of Black Folk (1903), ‘Would America have been America without her Negro people?’"
Catastrophic vs. Survivalist Interpretation
"The catastrophic interpretation emphasizes what has been done to black people. It highlights the horrors of the slave trade, slavery, segregation, second-class citizenship, racism, and inequality. I find that most white students resonate more to this approach. They are disturbed by the dominant society’s victimization of African Americans. Some of them even find it difficult to accept that in the ‘land of the free and the home of the brave,’ African Americans were so fundamentally denied their humanity, let alone their rights as American citizens. The survivalist interpretation, on the other hand, promotes black achievement despite the odds. Here, black students and other students of color resonate more to black resistance and the development of a distinctive voice. Some students tend to deny the damaging effects of racial oppression. This dichotomy, not always falling rigidly along racial lines, sets up a classroom dynamic that can be explored to benefit a better understanding of historical interpretation and analysis.
"For years, culture was ignored as African American historians wrote about and taught the injustices heaped on black people. For many historians, this approach was important to justify emancipation and racial equality. As black resistance came to the fore during the Civil Rights era, and as self-determining black voices emerged during the Black Power movement, historians began to study African American culture more closely. As Joe W. Trotter has suggested, community and culture studies delineating the common struggles and victories of African Americans dominated much of the writing in the field until the late 1980s.2 But in their efforts to demonstrate common bonds among African Americans, the community studies generally overshadowed issues of class, gender, and sexuality. Black or African American more often than not meant male, usually middle class, and definitely heterosexual.
Too Much Minority History?
The dilemma for teaching African American history is how to select an appropriate medium; in other words, which lens to use at what times, for understanding the African American past. For too long, we examined African Americans through the lens of the dominant society and in the process imposed interpretations on their thoughts and activities that muted black voices and misconstrued their actions. More recently, we have focused the lens on African Americans but have lost sight of the dominant society. We understand a lot more about black people, their travails and triumphs, but we do not understand as much about the context within which they have struggled for racial equality.
"The story of black communities working together, protecting themselves from the slings and arrows of racism, is almost idyllic, evoking romantic images of the past. In describing a time when urban communities were ghettoes but not slums, when black neighborhoods were fairly self-sufficient with black owned and operated businesses, it is difficult not to leave an impression of the ‘good old days’ before desegregation."
-Robert L. Harris Jr
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I keep seeing this time and time again from people that mean well. Clearly, the education system has failed us all… so before Black History Month even begins, let’s discuss the history of Black History Month.
Without meetings, without rituals, ceremonies, myths and symbols, there can be no great people. Afro Americans, recognizing this… went out into the alleys and the fields and formed their own institutions, and in the process, invented themselves. - scholar Lerone Bennett Jr, 1968
Firstly, Black Americans used to have yearly celebrations in remembrance of Emancipation. A terrific book about these celebrations is Festivals of Freedom: Memory and Meaning in African American Emancipation Celebrations, 1808-1915. It was at the 3 week long 50th Emancipation celebration in Washington D.C. that Carter G. Woodson first found his inspiration for what we now call Black History Month.
Thousands of Black people waited in long lines to see exhibits about the progress Blacks had made since Emancipation. Woodson, who had a doctorate degree from Harvard, also had an exhibit set up. Seeing so many people anxious to know their history inspired Woodson to form the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH), “an organization to promote the scientific study of black life and history.”
He established The Journal of Negro History in 1916 and hoped that others would popularize the research he and his fellow scholars published. He began to promote their uncovered Black achievements. He was able to get his Omega Psi Phi fraternity brothers to establish a successful Negro History and Literature Week, but Woodson wanted more. In February, 1926, Woodson sent out a press release announcing Negro History Week.
"Woodson chose February for the reasons of tradition and reform.”
- Tradition: Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass both have birthdays in February. Republicans and Blacks had already been celebrating Lincoln’s birthday (12th) and Blacks had been celebrating Douglass’ birthday (14th). By not creating something completely new but rather extending on celebrations that were already there, Woodson sought to increase his chance of successfully establishing Negro History Week.
- Reform: Woodson did not particularly like the celebrations held for Lincoln and Douglass. He believed that history and progress was made by people, not just by great men. He wanted to shift the focus away from just two individuals to the entire race.
So, there you go.
How popular was Negro History Week? Was Negro History Week meant to be permanent or temporary? How did Negro History Week become Black History Month? How would Woodson feel about the commercialization of Black History Month? Read more (via ASALH)
- First raise the prices of homes in certain areas, making it difficult for minorities to live there (this in addition to the institutional racism found in banks that regularly deny home loans to blacks and browns irrespective of credit).
- Then create a legal justification for segregating schools by implementing “school zones” in the administration; the idea that if a student lives too far from the school (out of zone) the likelihood of truancy and tardiness increases. So, certain schools for certain kids.
- Thus succeed in legally maintaining segregated schools with some being predominately white, and others being predominately black/latino (with a few integrated ones to keep up the illusion of racial equality). Because hey Hakim Jones, you’re 10 miles out of our zone but you are within range of Underpaid Teachers and 40 Kids In A Class High School. Check that one out :)