The origins of Black History Month
Dr. Carter G. Woodson was the son of former slaves and the second black person to receive a degree from Harvard University. Woodson understood the value of education. He also felt the importance of preserving one's heritage and in 1920 he facilitated in creating Negro History and Literature Week. Woodson hoped that if there were a Negro History Week, it would proliferate and Negro History would become in the forefront of the American portrait http://www.biography.com/tv/classroom/about-black-history-month.
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.” Thereafter, during the month of February the first African American History Month was observed some fifty or so years after Woodson’s Negro History Week’s proposal "President Gerald R. Ford's Message on the Observance of Black History Month". Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum. University of Texas.
The personal histories of Black History
Black History Month has become a time of reflection and deconstruction (Caputo, 1997) for many folks with African ancestry living in America. This Examiner lays claim to the latter; as I determine the meaning and importance of my historical summation. Commemorating Black History for one month out of the year, though admirable, does not manifest the enormous contributions and personal histories that make up this nation’s existence, reality, and endurance.
Telling the story
Griots are accurate storytellers who hand down the history of their family through oral traditions. More often than not the griot is an elderly family member who has total recall of past events. The griot on my father’s side was my aunt. She lived to be 94 and spoke of associating with former slaves. She would depict them as, “The one who lived down the road”, or “The one who lived behind Uncle Frank”. The only name she could recall of one slave was “Sally”.
Nonetheless, she was very thorough when she spoke of her grandfather who was a slave. After being set free he took the last name of his slave master: Mitchell. Most persons with African ancestry living in America know our last names were the last names of our slave masters’. My aunt detailed how the master’s wife taught her grandfather to read the Bible, and he in turn taught his children the same.
My aunt graphically describes the levee breaking in Plummerville, Arkansas somewhere around “nineteen hunded’ or so”, and the family Bible was washed away. The names and birth dates of all members were written in the Bible going all the way back to her grandfather. Our genealogy was committed to memory however, and handed down through the generations.
Besides the blood of slaves coursing through my veins, my aunt also disclosed that her grandfather married a Native American Indian. Comparatively, my mother talks of growing up in Bessemer, Alabama with bi-racial parents. Both of my mother’s grandfathers were white, as her grandmothers were black and worked in the homes of white people and were taken advantage of by the home owners.
My mother’s rendition of events that unfolded when she was six or seven embodies the theme of a nonfiction novella. My mother’s maternal grandfather passed away. His wife wanted to see her late husband’s “colored” grandchildren. My grandmother accommodated and took my mother and her sister and brother to see their white step-grandmother.
My mother describes the encounter as more of a standoff and stare-off. Her white step-grandmother stood on the porch eyeing the three children. Niceties were exchanged, and she said that she just wanted to see them. My mother recalls walking back home in the extremely hot Alabama sun with a fading image of the old white woman clouding her mind’s eye. So then, my existence is not without complexities.
The history we all share
Events that make up Black History can be collective such as the life and struggles of Martin Luther King Jr., or the accomplishments of Dr. Carter Woodson and the poetic genius of Langston Hughes. Each of these men had a personal quest that transcended into a public historical phenomenon.
Harriet Tubman has her own piece of the rock right here in Detroit, as Detroit was a major passage for the Underground Railroad to get to Canada for freedom. Tubman made her personal mission a lifetime undertaking and she boasted of never losing a passenger.
Fortunately, Black History Month opens up dialogue and lessons about a persons’ heritage and allows articles such as this one to hold sway. History is a combination of public and individual pursuits and all persons are sums of their ancestral existences and experiences.
A new generation learns
My grandson is a kindergartener and he learned about Martin Luther King Jr. in school. He had some very poignant questions for me regarding the life and death of King. Being the astute Grammy that I am, I tried to answer his questions with age appropriate responses.
My grandson’s first question was, “Why did they kill Martin Luther King?” I explained to him that King made some people very angry because King felt that all people should live together in peace. Next, “How did they kill him?” I told my grandson that King was shot. Next, “Why didn’t Martin Luther King catch the bullet before it hit him?” My answer; bullets travel very fast. Next, “Grammy, do bullets travel faster than lions?”
After debating over the trajectory of bullets, he asked me if we could go to the graveyard and take some flowers and a cake to Martin Luther King Jr. for his birthday. He insisted that we could drive there before it was time for his mother to get off of work.
If you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl but by all means keep moving.
Martin Luther King Jr.
Caputo, J., Deconstruction in a Nutshell, New York: Fordham University Press, 1997.