February is designated Black History Month and should be a time when we make a special effort, not the only effort, to focus on lessons from history and apply those lessons to our ongoing struggle. It is not only a chance to celebrate, but a time to reflect and a time to honor those who forged a way for us.
But this time of year corporations pick up kente cloth and pics of Harriet Tubman, sponsor a couple events, take smiling photos and show how they “respect” us. While Blacks who work for corporations are sincerely trying to get our history recognized and sincerely trying to get some resources for our neighborhoods, the corporations are only worried about image and profits.
Black History Month is rooted in the work and the mind of the great educator and historian Dr. Carter G. Woodson. Dr. Woodson started Negro History Week in February 1926. “We are going back to that beautiful history and it is going to inspire us to greater achievements,” he said. “Woodson chose February for reasons of tradition and reform.
It is commonly said that Woodson selected February to encompass the birthdays of two great Americans who played a prominent role in shaping black history, namely Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, whose birthdays are the 12th and the 14th, respectively. More importantly, he chose them for reasons of tradition. Since Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, the Black community, along with other Republicans, had been celebrating the fallen President’s birthday. And since the late 1890s, Black communities across the country had been celebrating Douglass’. Well aware of the pre-existing celebrations, Woodson built Negro History Week around traditional days of commemorating the Black past. He was asking the public to extend their study of Black history, not to create a new tradition. In doing so, he increased his chances for success.
“Yet Woodson was up to something more than building on tradition. Without saying so, he aimed to reform it from the study of two great men to a great race. Though he admired both men, Woodson had never been fond of the celebrations held in their honor. He railed against the ‘ignorant spellbinders’ who addressed large, convivial gatherings and displayed their lack of knowledge about the men and their contributions to history. More importantly, Woodson believed that history was made by the people, not simply or primarily by great men. He envisioned the study and celebration of the Negro as a race, not simply as the producers of a great man. And Lincoln, however great, had not freed the slaves–the Union Army, including hundreds of thousands of Black soldiers and sailors, had done that. Rather than focusing on two men, the Black community, he believed, should focus on the countless Black men and women who had contributed to the advance of human civilization,” the Association for the Study of African American Life and History noted. Dr. Woodson founded the institute in 1915 as the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History.
From the outset, the idea was to promote the knowledge of self and use knowledge of self to build for the future. It was never about presenting a few acceptable portraits and giving White America and Black folk role models who didn’t speak the language of independence and self-sufficiency.
It was Dr. Woodson who wrote the “Mis-Education of the Negro” and warned of the danger of indoctrination and having Blacks possess an inferior understanding of who they were and their place on the world stage. His book condemned training that left Blacks voluntary second class citizens, suffering from mental bondage. He warns against not understanding self-independence must be the essence of education.
“Philosophers have long conceded, however, that every man has two educators: ‘that which is given to him, and the other that which he gives himself. Of the two kinds the latter is by far the more desirable. Indeed all that is most worthy in man he must work out and conquer for himself. It is that which constitutes our real and best nourishment. What we are merely taught seldom nourishes the mind like that which we teach ourselves,” Dr. Woodson observed in The Mis-Education of the Negro.
“If you teach the Negro that he has accomplished as much good as any other race he will aspire to equality and justice without regard to race. Such an effort would upset the program of the oppressor in Africa and America. Play up before the Negro, then, his crimes and shortcomings. Let him learn to admire the Hebrew, the Greek, the Latin and the Teuton. Lead the Negro to detest the man of African blood–to hate himself,” Dr. Woodson also wrote in his seminal work.
When Black America possesses $1 trillion in spending power but begs others to fund programs, projects and salutes to history, the mind of the slave is still at work. The mental shackles and chains of self-hatred have not been broken. We need to stand like men and women today, unite and build for ourselves. Our unity and strength and sacrifice will get us what we desire. The people we are begging for help are trying to find ways to survive and see us as a threat to that survival–male, female, old, young, abled, disabled, educated, uneducated. It is one of the great lessons of our history and a lesson we ignore at our own peril.
History is supposed to reward research and the lessons from yesterday are supposed to offer a roadmap or beginning of a road map to avoid failures and pitfalls. If we are unwilling to embrace our full history, which has no beginning and no ending, we are like a tree without roots, as noted by the great Marcus Mosiah Garvey and as the Most Honorable Elijah Muhammad taught, self-knowledge is a prerequisite for our rise, we cannot rise tied to the thinking and customs of our former slave masters.
We must have a proper knowledge of ourselves and with that knowledge build for the future. History is no use if it only looks backward and only recites the accomplishments of slaves and former slaves.