Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Black History Month offers lessons for all of us


Black history is a subject too interesting and vast to be confined to a single month, much less the shortest one. But brief as the month is, it does represent a chance to bear witness, if only in a small way, to the progress, richness and diversity of African-American achievement.

It was during the 1920s that Carter Woodson, a premier black historian, first put forward his idea of a Negro History Week. Woodson saw the celebration as a way to advance the idea of African history as a form of black cultural empowerment and emancipation.

In his view, the knowledge and dissemination of African history would, “besides building self-esteem among blacks, help eliminate prejudice among whites.”

He aimed, he wrote, both “to inculcate in the mind of the youth of African blood an appreciation of what their race has thought and felt and done” and to publicize the facts of the black among whites, so that “the Negro may enjoy a larger share of the privileges of democracy as a result of the recognition of his worth.”

In a speech at Hampton Institute in 1921, Woodson addressed the issue head on: “We have a wonderful history behind us,” he told his listeners. “(But) ... if you are unable to demonstrate to the world that you have this record, the world will say to you, ‘You are not worthy to enjoy the blessings of democracy or anything else.’ They will say to you, ‘Who are you, anyway? Your ancestors have never controlled empires or kingdoms and most of your race have contributed little or nothing to science and philosophy and mathematics.’

“So far as you know, they have not; but if you will read the history of Africa, the history of your ancestors’ people of whom you should feel proud, you will realize that they have a history that is worthwhile.

“They have traditions ... of which you can boast and upon which you can base a claim for a right to a share in the blessings of democracy.

“Let us, then, study ... this history ... with the understanding that we are not, after all, an inferior people. We are going back to that beautiful history and it is going to inspire us to greater achievements. It is not going to be long before we can sing the story to the outside world as to convince it of the value of our history ... and we are going to be recognized as men.”

Many decades have passed since Woodson spoke those words. But the pride and the passion in them are as fresh today as they were 90 years ago.

The week-long celebration Woodson first envisioned has become a month-long period for Americans of all races to reflect on the history and teachings of African-Americans whose contributions are still too little known and appreciated.

Along those lines, there is an African proverb that seems especially appropriate for this time of year: “Know your history,” it urges, “and you will always be wise.”

Good advice, that. Indeed the collective history of the African-American community contains invaluable lessons for us all.