Community Voices: The significance of Black History Month

Kevin Peterson | 2/6/2013, 9:15 a.m.

Black History Month answers the question: Who is the African American? What is his or her place in a society so unique and so recognized as one of the greatest, most powerful in known history? How have black people — in a country where they have for several centuries been denied the status of being — forge an identity so far-reaching that they managed to inalterably shape the cultures of the North Atlantic nations, Europe and Africa itself?

Founded in 1926, Black History Month was started as Negro History Week by Carter G. Woodson, a Harvard-trained historian who, six decades after the end of American slavery, noted that no exacting historical record existed that depicted the contributions blacks had made to American culture. According to Woodson, the dearth of materials that supported the lively presence of a race of people who emerged from slavery to emancipation on the strength of its own vitality  and resources was profound.

Because of this, Woodson dedicated the rest of his life to researching and promulgating the black presence in America, becoming a secular minister of culture, of sorts — documenting black innovation in the areas of the arts and sciences, literature, politics, sport, business, humor, invention, the economy, demography, religion and the particularities of what we generally know as the American identity.

Woodson’s efforts would make clear, for the generations to follow, that it was the contribution of the American slave that provided the foundation of the world economy in the 17th and 18th centuries. The American dialect — a melange of English, African, French and Native-American — would also be profoundly influenced by the African slave and freedman, shaping the American sense of narrative, slang and the pedestrian and high cultures.

More than this: The African American’s interpretation of the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence would radically influence the country’s politics, its perceptions of the meaning of fairness and its sense of justice.  And the African American would impact the country’s moral consciousness by passing critical judgement upon what the historian W.E.B. Du Bois called America’s “mad money getting plutocracy.”  

And no one could deny the deep, lasting impact of black religion and the development of the sacred understandings of what it means to be an American. Leading this development were such advocates as Frederick Douglass, Henry Highland Garnett, and Ida B. Wells and Sojourner Truth. Others include Dr. Mordecai Wyatt Johnson of Howard University, Rev. Gardner Taylor of Concord Baptist Church of Christ, and religious vocalists such as Mahalia Jackson and Ethel Waters.

But at the center of the American experience is how black people demanded and incessantly worked for freedom in the civic sphere, how they, in the words of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., “carved from a mountain of despair, a stone of hope.”

This demand, it must be remembered, reflected a broader, transracial need of all who yearn for freedom, reminding us that forms of slavery existed throughout history that included the subjugation of whites, Asians, Native Americans, Indians, women, children, tribes, clans and many more. The American Negroes, as they struggled for freedom in the middle years of the last century, knew this precisely.

Who is the African-American?  He and she are representative of the resilience of human intelligence, perseverance, moral force, purposeful spirit, achievement and persistence. As such, the African American shall remain a moral and spiritual fulcrum around which democracy, American history and the future will revolve.

Kevin C. Peterson is founder and director of The New Democracy Coalition.