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Reflections on the Black History Month

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Message Abdus Sattar Ghazali
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Knowledge of the past is a key to understanding the present. French Philosopher Paul Valery says it is necessary to study history, even to study it deeply, in order to obtain a clear meaning of our immediate time. There is always a connection between the way in which men contemplate the past and the way in which they contemplate the present. Although history cannot give us a program for the present or future, but it can give us a fuller understanding of ourselves, and of our common humanity, so that we can better face the present and future.

Hence, history isn't really about the past but it's about defining the present and also the future. The Roman philosopher, Marcus Cicero strongly argued the study of history because “to be ignorant of the past is to remain a child.” In short, to borrow historian Sidney E. Mead, history, is an analysis of the past in order that we may understand the present and guide our conduct into the future.

Carter Godwin Woodson (1875-1950), remembered as the Father of Black History, realized the importance of history and argued that those who have no record of what their forebears have accomplished lose the inspiration which comes from the teaching of biography and history. He recognized and acted upon the importance of a people having knowledge of its race and its contributions to civilization.

Woodson believed that if you can control a man’s thinking, you don’t have to worry about his actions. “If you can determine what a man thinks you do not have worry about what he will do. If you can make a man believe that he is inferior, you don’t have to compel him to seek an inferior status, he will do so without being told and if you can make a man believe that he is justly an outcast, you don’t have to order him to the back door.”

Woodson saw the current history books no more than a record of the “successes and disappointments, the vices, the follies, and the quarrels, of those who engage in contention for power.” As a result, Woodson said, blacks had virtually no knowledge about their history and were seen as a “child-like race.”

He observed that schools are places where they must be convinced of their inferiority. “The thought of the inferiority of the Negro is drilled into him in almost every class he enters and in almost every book he studies.”

But for Woodson the necessity of documenting black history was more than just about the recognition of black contributions: it was to wage a battle against racism. Woodson believed that racism was not inherent in human nature, but was a consequence of the belief that blacks had contributed nothing to mankind; therefore, blacks were viewed as inferior. It was inevitable, said Woodson, that all achievements would eventually be attributed to one race.

Born to parents who were former slaves, Woodson spent his childhood working in the Kentucky coal mines and enrolled in high school at the age of twenty. He graduated within two years and later went on to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard. The scholar was disturbed to find in his studies that history books largely ignored the black American population - and when blacks did figure into the picture, it was generally in ways that reflected the inferior social position they were assigned at the time.

Woodson decided to take on the challenge of writing black Americans into the nation's history. He established the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (now called the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History) in 1915, and a year later founded the widely respected Journal of Negro History. In 1926, he launched Negro History Week as an initiative to bring national attention to the contributions of black people throughout American history. The initiative was also aimed at underlining the harms of racial prejudice and to cultivate black self-esteem following centuries of socio-economic oppression.

Americans have recognized black history annually since 1926 but what you might not know is that black history had barely begun to be studied - or even documented - when the tradition originated. Although blacks have been in America at least as far back as colonial times, it was not until the 20th century that they gained a respectable presence in the history books.

When the tradition of Black History Month was started, most representation of blacks in history books was only in reference to the low social position they held, with the exception of George Washington Carver (1864 –1943). Carver was an American botanical researcher and agronomy educator who worked in agricultural extension at the Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama, teaching former slaves farming techniques for self-sufficiency.

Today, unlike in Woodson’s time, knowledge about black history has certainly come a long way. Now, there are numerous books written about important black people and their contributions. This is definitely one part of Woodson’s goal that has been achieved. As for Woodson’s goal to end racism, it has not been completely recognized, but significant progress has been made and this, in fact, may be due in part to the education about blacks in American history.

Interestingly, Black History Month sparks an annual debate about the continued usefulness and fairness of a designated month dedicated to the history of one race. Some African American radical/nationalist groups, including the Nation of Islam, have criticized Black History Month. Other critics contend that Black History Month is irrelevant because it has degenerated into a shallow ritual. Some critics argue that sanctioning a racially distinct observation moves Americans away from a common history.

In February 2006, Actor Morgan Freeman re-energized the debate over the pertinence of Black History Month, now an 82-year-old cultural institution for African Americans. In an interview on CBS' "60 Minutes" Freeman said: “You're going to relegate my history to a month? ….. I don't want a black history month. ... Black history is American history.”

Perhaps Woodson, creator of the Negro History week in 1926 that later turned into the Black History Month, had hoped that the week would eventually be eliminated, when African-American history would be fully integrated with American history.

However, Mel Watkins, author of “On the Real Side,” a history of African American comedy, believes it is necessary because African American history isn’t yet fully integrated into American history. “The irony of it is that we still have to have a Black History Month to remind people that we have a history.” The Black History Month is celebrated in the United States and Canada in February while in Britain in October every year
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Author and journalist. Author of Islamic Pakistan: Illusions & Reality; Islam in the Post-Cold War Era; Islam & Modernism; Islam & Muslims in the Post-9/11 America. Currently working as free lance journalist. Executive Editor of American (more...)
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