By Darryl Lorenzo Wellington
For the past 10 years during Black History Month, I have written an article on why studying Black history ― and other histories of people of color ― is important and necessary. The answer over the years has remained the same: It’s important because too many Americans (sometimes including Black Americans) don’t know enough about Black American history in a significant, meaningful, and impacting way. And of course, it is a moment in time for us to really delve into how so much of our history was covered up, ignored and distorted.
This year, I must add to my list of clueless Americans the President of the United States. Consider Donald Trump’s relatively brief Black History Month presentation early in the month, during which he (by now notoriously) referred to Frederick Douglass as “somebody who’s done an amazing job” as though Frederick Douglass was still alive. Maybe he envisioned a Black Republican or a hard-working White House staffer rather than a preeminent abolitionist who died in 1895. Throughout Trump’s Black History Month presentation (see the video here) the president often rambled and limited his comments on Black History Month to a few perfunctory remarks read from notes ― but even then he managed to leave many observers befuddled. My own guess would be that he may have had a loose familiarity with Douglass’ name sufficient to recall it was somehow associated with Black Americans, but his knowledge otherwise lacked context. He ― and many others ― certainly wouldn’t know other contextualizing details such as that Douglass used his renown to convince Abraham Lincoln to fight the Civil war, to issue the Emancipation Proclamation and to establish the major Black regiment in the Union army ― the 54th of Massachusetts. Here’s another bit of information people should know (but probably don’t): Black History month originated from historian Carter G. Woodson, best remembered for having published The Mis-Education of the Negro in 1933. Woodson originally proposed having a “Negro History Week” each February. In 1976, this event officially became Black History Month.
A lack of contextual knowledge regarding Frederick Douglass leads me to ask how much people might know about Olaudah Equiano, Benjamin Banneker, Sojourner Truth, Reconstruction, James Weldon Johnson, the Great Migration, Emmet Till, or the many heroes of the struggle for civil rights who preceded Martin Luther King Jr. Unfortunately, millions of Americans lack background knowledge of these people, places and events that are seminal to American history.
Black History Month instills a sense of pride and purposefulness in African Americans. It also reminds all Americans that our national history is inherently multi-cultural ― a tapestry of stories of the powerful, of the powerless, of Native Americans, Blacks, whites, and immigrants.
Failing to appreciate our multi-cultural national heritage estranges us, divides us, and hurts us as a nation.
Several years ago, I was on a cross-country train ride. I was seated in the observation car alongside a group of college freshmen who told me they were Ivy League students. The group included an African American young lady.
The train briefly stopped in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. For any student of African American history, Harpers Ferry WV is not just any place. It’s the location of John Brown’s raid, a failed military mission to incite a slave revolt which nonetheless stirred tensions which led to the Civil War. For me, the site was the location of a flux of emotions related to the violence, oppression, and inhumanity that preceded emancipation. I rushed to the first available window. The young lady who was African American stole to the window too.
But her college friends were less than wowed. “This is Harper’s Ferry,” she explained. “You know, where John Brown… The raid.”
Her friends wore blank expressions. “You’re kidding,” she finally sighed. I could see the disappointment etched on her face while she realized that she and her friends could be united by a common age, enthusiasms and ambitions, yet they still lacked a shared sense of history.
I believe these savvy young people had indeed all covered Harpers Ferry during their educations. But the others had forgotten. The story meant less to them than to the African American young lady. These students needed Black History Month to remind them that we still live in a nation in which our stories too often occupy separate boxes ― in which we stumble to communicate across ethnic and cultural lines in large part because the stories we have been handed down color our perceptions of truth, justice and race relations.
They needed Black History Month to remind them of the importance of empathy. These bright young minds at an age when knowledge is fruit ripe for the picking still needed Black History Month to fulfill their own potential and America’s promise. It’s only after the tapestry of American history has been woven together that E Pluribus Unum can truly become meaningful. If you wonder why we still need Black History Month, it is because this month of commemoration and celebration helps us to become better Americans.
Darryl Lorenzo Wellington is a writing fellow for the Center for Community Change.