Black History Month in Donald Trump’s America
|thenorthstar||Feb 20, 2019|
Activists in Union Square Park protesting against the election of Donald Trump, 2016 (A. Katz/Shutterstock). In the minds of many commentators, our current moment defies the imagination. The ubiquity of “fake news,” which privileges rhetoric over reality and creates false equivalencies between nationalism and xenophobia, jars public discourse. This lack of civility in the public sphere now seems normative rather than aberrational, and sets the nation adrift in a sea of denial, exclusion, and provincialism. The way forward is peering through the past, and the Black freedom struggle offers some of the most salient tools to address this situation. In this Trumpian moment, Black History Month provides a blueprint to construct a more humanistic, egalitarian, democratic, and socially-conscious country.
African American History Month is celebrated in February because Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, two Americans whose influence defines African American and American history, have birthdays in this month. Intent on preserving the Union at all costs, Lincoln gradually moved to embrace dismantling, and ultimately, the total destruction of slavery. If Lincoln was a reluctant emancipator, Douglass was a consistent and vocal drum major for emancipation and full Black rights. This interracial pairing has come to symbolize the broader humanistic sensibilities of Black history, which is informed by the desire to create a bedrock of democratic equality.
Teaching African American history was a bulwark against many of the most problematic practices of the late 19th and 20th centuries. Not unlike our contemporary moment, the late 19th and early 20th centuries were fraught with anxiety. Poor urban conditions, labor militancy, nativist agitation regarding immigration, the “Negro Question,” imperialism, and the Great War (WWI) dominated the public mind. Against this backdrop, the professionalization and institutionalization of African American history occurred. This process was an extension of almost one hundred years of Black historical production in oral, commemorative, literary and textual spaces.
Forged in the fires of slavery and freedom, jubilee and Jim Crow, Black history offered alternatives to narrow and provincial notions of American identity. It heralded an expansive and multicultural notion of identity and national possibility, as well as an inclusive world free from racial strife.
At its inception in 1926, Negro History Week — the predecessor to Black History Month — aimed to build pride, deepen understanding, and normalize Black history in homes and schools by educating Black children. The pages of the Journal of Negro History (JNH) and the Negro History Bulletin reveal the deep engagement of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH) with Black education from primary to university level. The year Negro History Week was established, ASNLH meetings took place at Morgan State College where noted Black educator Otelia Cromwell waxed eloquently about the importance of Black history in secondary schools.
African American history has also been informed by the social, cultural and intellectual needs of the adult Black community. Orations of Jacob Oson, Maria Stewart, and Hosea Easton served the community in the early 19th century. Influential literary and historical societies in the early 20th century, including Mu So-Lit, American Negro Academy and Negro Historical society, embraced a wide swath of individuals from the illiterate to the college educated. They expanded, rather than limited, who could contribute to constructing and explaining the Black past.
Black History Month is a reminder of the contributions and centrality of African Americans to American history, and embraces the diversity of our lived experience as Americans. This inclusivity required breaking down barriers and building bridges between Blacks and whites, which also took the form of broadening historical outreach to the white academy. Prominent white academics were included on the executive board of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (now the Association for the Study of African American Life and History), including well-known American historians J. Franklin Jameson and Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. The association also embraced the work of white radical historians associated with the Communist Party or Labor and Old Right movements, including Herbert Aptheker, Philip S. Foner, Herbert Gutman, and Robert S. Starobin.
Black historians also looked beyond the domestic to embrace the history, language and culture of the broader world. The pages of the JNH featured myriad discussions of the Black presence in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas. Rather than building walls, these historical writers built cultural and intellectual bridges to communities of color throughout the world. This inclusiveness broadened the scope of inquiry and the audience for the Black past. It was truly a history that knew no boundaries. Black chroniclers of history have long used the past as a balm to soothe the rough edges of the nation. Their work aimed to dismantle the slave trade and slavery, counter the exploitation of imperialism and colonialism, and contest the limitations of Social Darwinism and unquestioned “negrophobia.” It helped to dismantle Jim Crow, ushered in the Civil Rights Movement, and later the Black Power Movement. Famous Black writers, from Shirley Chisholm to Barack Obama, defied the odds and laid the foundations for Black history in the 21st century.
“Children are the future” was not merely an empty platitude but a living and breathing reality for those who promoted Black History Month; Black history has also looked to future generations. Throughout the 19th century, Black historians produced history in the form of textbooks; these books included minister and activist James W.C.
Pennington's Textbook of the History and Origin of the Colored Race(1841), college professor and writer Edward Johnson's School History of the Negro Race (1890), and educator Leila Amos Pendleton's Narrative of the Negro (1912). Black schools played an important role in disseminating and supporting the study of African American history. Today, technological innovations including online course syllabi and the digitization of major archives (from the papers of Omar ibn Said to transatlantic ship voyages) make Black history more widely accessible and obtainable than ever before. In addition, online journals and blogs by the African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS) are revolutionizing our understanding of the Black past. In this Trumpian moment, we must affirm the power of the Black freedom struggle and its most powerful tool: Black History Month. Black History Month drew strength from the rich legacy of the past as it charted a path forward and imagined a transformative future, offering an exemplary counterforce to our current quandary. Black History Month trumps tribalism, racism, and misogyny by appealing to the best within us. It affirms our interdependence, humanity, and the unbridled and unparalleled possibilities of the future.
About the Author
Stephen G. Hall is a sections editor for The North Star. He is a historian specializing in 19th and 20th century African American and American intellectual, social and cultural history and the African Diaspora. Hall is the author of A Faithful Account of the Race: African American Historical Writing in Nineteenth-Century America. He is working on a new book exploring the scholarly production of Black historians on the African Diaspora from 1885 to 1960.