'Trying To Reckon Honestly': Dartmouth Prof. On The Evolution Of Black History Month

Historians in the News
tags: African American history, Black History Month

What does Black History Month mean in the era of Black Lives Matter and a national reckoning with white supremacy? 

Black History Month is a time when the country reflects on — and celebrates — the role of Black Americans in the tapestry of the nation's history. But that history is still being written, and just last year, a terrible new chapter was recorded when yet another unarmed Black man was killed by a law enforcement official in a case that drew national outrage amid the pandemic. It's a pattern Black Americans have been familiar with since the nation’s inception.

VPR's Mitch Wertlieb spoke with with Matt Delmont, a history professor at Dartmouth College who specializes in African American history, the history of Civil Rights movement, and pop culture and media. He's also the author of the digital project and 2019 book Black Quotidian: Everyday History in African-American NewspapersTheir conversation has been edited for clarity.

Mitch Wertlieb: Let’s start with Black History Month itself. Where and when did the idea of Black History Month actually come from?

Matt Delmont: Black History Month is nearly 100-years-old. It started in 1926. At that point, it was called Negro History Week, and it was started by a historian named Carter G. Woodson, who did some really important work to institutionalize the study of African-American history. People have been studying African history. Black communities had for decades and decades. But it wasn't until the 1920s that this became kind of institutionalized as a study. And so 1926 was the first year he launched what he called, at the time, Negro History Week.

And what's important to remember at that time was that it was not just the work of singular academic historians, but it was really a communitywide effort all across the country. Negro History Week wouldn't have taken off without the work of teachers, librarians, parents, ministers, really kind of everyday people who took this material that was being sent out by whites and others and really made it kind of come to life in their own communities.

There were a handful of white scholars and white communities that understood the importance of Black history that early on. But it wasn't really until, I would say, the Civil Rights era of the 1950s and '60s, that mainstream white America really came to understand the importance of studying Black history.

Prof. Delmont, if you were to categorize Black History Month as being successful or unsuccessful in the sense of helping Americans understand the role of African-Americans in the nation's history, what kind of a grade would you give it? Has it been a successful effort through the years?

I think I'd answer that in two ways. On one hand, it's been tremendously successful. It's one of the most successful educational programs we have in our nation's history. The evidence that I would point you to for that is, when you ask Americans who they consider to be a famous American and you exclude presidents, the two most popular answers are Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks. Now, that was almost inconceivable, if you go back to the 1960s and 1970s, that average Americans would cite two Black figures as some of the most important figures in our nation's history.

So from that perspective, we wouldn't have that kind of name recognition for those iconic figures without Black History Month and the fact that generations of schoolchildren now have been taught Black history, at least during February.

The part where I feel like it's been less successful is that it's sometimes too easy for white Americans to only focus on Black history during February and did not really understand the fact that you can't understand American history without understanding Black history. And so that's the part I think is still in front of us, that Black History Month is a great thing. We should always be celebrating in February. And if we only think about Black history as being a one time of year thing, we lose sight of the fact that it should be threaded throughout our study every day of the year.

Read entire article at Vermont Public Radio

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