In 1926, revered historian Carter G. Woodson (1875-1950) initiated “Negro History Week,” which became Black History Month in 1976. Dr. Woodson chose February because it contains President Abraham Lincoln’s and Frederick Douglass’s birthdays. Dr. Woodson’s efforts countered the prevailing White dominant narrative that African Americans’ contributions were a “negligible factor” in American history (among his most famous works: The Miseducation of the Negro, a treatise on liberatory learning perspectives and practices for Black people). The Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH), which Dr. Woodson founded in 1915, continues to show the range of Black American life by sponsoring scholarly publications, conferences, and public events and celebrations.
May the next 27 days fortify all Americans for an unwavering commitment to Black people’s humanity.
This year, ASALH’s theme is “The Black Family: Representation, Identity, and Diversity.” Check out their Virtual Festival featuring free events throughout the month! Commenting on the 2021 theme, Harvard historian and ASALH President Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham wrote: “Despite the negative, pathological images of black families portrayed in nineteenth-century justifications for slavery and in twentieth-century governmental policy reports, the march of time has proved that the black family best represents the source of perseverance and resilience that brought African Americans through centuries of enslavement, Jim Crow laws, and the glaring racial inequalities and dangers that continue to this day. In the twenty-first century, ASALH celebrates African American families in all their historic diversity, recognizing that our families comprise a mélange of identities.”
Last week, we lost legendary actress Cicely Tyson (1924-2021). Throughout her career, in keeping with ASALH’s theme, Ms. Tyson portrayed Black life in its rich human fulness. Her roles contrasted with the distortions projected about Black people by White gatekeepers in media and Hollywood. In one of her final appearances in Ava Duvernay’s “Cherish the Day,” Tyson in effect played herself: a brilliant Black woman artist who achieved greatness, but who would have soared higher were she not flying into racist headwinds. Among Tyson’s most notable roles are those she played in “Sounder” (1972) and “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman” (1974).
And certainly Duvernay deserves a huge shoutout for her ground-breaking depictions of Black life and political interests. Her documentary 13TH discusses how “slave logics” infect our core institutions, particularly the criminal justice system, despite the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which ends chattel slavery. Duvernay’s series Queen Sugar on Oprah’s OWN network chronicles the Bordelons, a Black family in Louisiana who own a sugar cane farm and mill. Through Queen Sugar, we see Black people love, laugh, stumble, and triumph in all their human splendor.
Media mogul Oprah deserves props too. Oprah leverages her stature and billions to lift up Black writers expressing Black humanity with candor and care—from Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple (1982); to TaNehisi Coates, author of Between the World and Me (2015) and The Water Dancer (2019); to Colson Whitehead, author of The Underground Railroad (2016).
Today, nearly a century since “Negro History Week” was established, we’re blessed to have our popular imagination seeded with Black humanity rendered with more honesty and rigor. However, the struggle to present Black people as human, just plain human—not “magically” resilient, nor predisposed to depravity—remains. Indeed, if there’s anything magical about Black people, it’s the determination to articulate our humanity on our terms. W.E.B. Du Bois calls this “double consciousness”—Black Americans’ capacity to hold in our mind both an understanding of how we see ourselves (fully human) and how most Whites (and the institutions they control) see us (less than human). The “dogged strength” Blacks exert to hold these opposites fuels us and offers unique insights, even as it burdens us (for more on this, read Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk (1903)). May the next 27 days fortify all Americans for an unwavering commitment to Black people’s humanity.
#BlackLivesMatter—24-7/365—they always have and they always will.