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African American History

Black History MonthIn the essay “On the Evolution of Scholarship in Afro-American History” the eminent historian John Hope Franklin declared “Every generation has the opportunity to write its own history, and indeed it is obliged to do so.” Carter G. Woodson noted that "If a race has no history, if it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated."

As a Harvard-trained historian, Carter G. Woodson, like W.E.B. Du Bois before him, believed that truth could not be denied and that reason would prevail over prejudice. Woodson, the son of former slaves who taught himself to read and write, obtained a bachelor's degree from the University of Chicago in 1907, attended the Sorbonne University in Paris, where he became fluent in French; and received a doctorate degree in history from Harvard University in 1912, becoming only the second African American to earn such a degree.

During Woodson's life, there was very little information and a lack of knowledge concerning African American life and history. Through his extensive studies, Woodson almost single-handedly established African American historiography. His research literally uncovered black history and helped to educate the American public about the contributions of African Americans to the nation's history and culture. Through scholarly and painstaking historical research, his work aided in overcoming the stereotypical portrayals of black people that limited the history of the country.

Woodson published many volumes of history, including "The Education of the Negro Prior to 1861" (published in 1915), and "A Century of Negro Migration" (1918), "The Mis-Education of the Negro" (1933), and "The Negro in Our History" (1922), which became the standard text on African American history for many years. He also edited the "Journal of Negro History" for 34 years.

In 1915 he founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH). The association's mission is to promote, research, preserve, interpret and disseminate information about African-American life, history and culture to the global community. With temporary headquarters on Washington's Howard University campus, the association operates local, state and international branches promoting greater knowledge of African-American history through a program of education, research and publishing.

His hopes to raise awareness of African American’s contributions to civilization was realized when he and the organization he founded conceived and announced Negro History Week in 1925. The event was first celebrated during a week in February 1926 that encompassed the birthdays of both Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. The response was overwhelming: Black history clubs sprang up; teachers demanded materials to instruct their pupils; and progressive whites, not simply white scholars and philanthropists, stepped forward to endorse the effort.

By the time of Woodson’s death in 1950, Negro History Week had become a central part of African American life and substantial progress had been made in bringing more Americans to appreciate the celebration. At mid–century, mayors of cities nationwide issued proclamations noting Negro History Week.

During the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, historians were preoccupied with describing the negative impact of slavery and segregation on individual African Americans, African-American communities and African-American culture. While soem accused these historians of beating a dead horse for three decades, repeating the same tales of woe, their body of work laid a foundation (both ideological and intellectual) for the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision in 1954. These historians felt that the work they had done brought an end to segregation and the obstacles that had prevented African Americans from taking part in the political, economic and social life of American society.

The 1960s were times of black power, the civil rights movement in all its fullness, black nationalism, black aesthetics, riots with tanks and armed soldiers, tear gas, student protests, sit-in demonstrations, and antiwar furor. The Black Awakening of the 1960s dramatically expanded the consciousness of African Americans about the importance of black history, and the Civil Rights movement focused Americans of all color on the subject of the contributions of African Americans to our history and culture.

In the midst of these mind-stretching and soul-stirring events, a variety of charismatic speakers came to campuses urging students to learn about black history and culture and to use that knowledge to improve the condition of the race. In the popular imagination, black history to that time had consisted of little more than a few slave revolts, and it was generally believed that all those blacks who had lived before the activist generation had been compromising accommodationists and "Uncle Toms" whose rare calls for liberty had been tepid and fruitless.

The Negro History Week celebration was expanded to a month in 1976, the nation’s bicentennial. President Gerald R. Ford urged Americans to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.” That year, fifty years after the first celebration, the association held the first African American History Month. By this time, the entire nation had come to recognize the importance of Black history in the drama of the American story. Since then each American president has issued African American History Month proclamations. And the association — now the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH)—continues to promote the study of Black history all year.

Scholarship on postwar African American social movements became a mature, well-rounded area of study with different interpretative schools and conflicting theoretical frameworks. However, progressively, the complexity generated by clashing interpretations eroded as a new paradigm has become hegemonic. Since the publication of "Freedom North" by Jeanne F. Theoharis and Komozi Woodard, the "Long Movement" emerged as the dominant theoretical interpretation of the modern "Civil Rights" and "Black Power" movements.

The "Long Movement" framework consisted of four elements that challenged previous interpretations of black freedom movements. Sundiata Keita Cha-Jua and Clarence Lang wrote "The four propositions are: (1) Locality, the modem Civil Rights (and Black Power) movement(s) was a series of local struggles rather than a national social movement; (2) Reperiodization, the modem Civil Rights (and Black Power) movement(s) transcends the historical period 1955-1975; (3) Continuity, the Civil Rights and Black Power movements are not distinct social movements, but rather a single continuous struggle for black freedom; and (4) The South was not distinct, the differences between southem de jure and northem de facto racial oppression were exaggerated, and racism is nationwide."

Both liberal and conservative scholars contrasted normatively "good" southem civil rights struggles of the early 1960s with "nihilistic" northem Black Power militancy during the "bad" late 1960s. Thus many of the historiographical developments associated with the tum toward the Long Movement are corrective and highlight the ideological and tactical heterogeneity of the period.

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Page last modified: 16-01-2022 21:00:14 ZULU