Sankofa is a word in the Twi language of Ghana that literally translates “fetch it go back and get it or “it is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten.”
The Sankofa concept advocates and encourages efforts to explore, examine, and educate blacks about the cultural and historical contributions of the Black diaspora. The foundations of Sankofa, fueled the establishment of a designated period to reflect and commemorate the historical contributions of peoples of African descent.
The evolution of Black History Month in the United States coincided with and was informed by the civil rights and Black movements. It would take decades of struggle for those movements to awaken the national consciousness and receive broad endorsement — particularly at the federal level. Today, Black History Month is widely observed not only in the United States but in several foreign countries throughout the diaspora. Despite wide acknowledgement, the observation, incites considerable controversy.
The need and political correctness of an isolated race based historical focus is hotly debated. Some contend that the celebration has devolved into hero worship, devoid of historical context. Others argue that in a post racial society continued celebration is racist and divisive. A few characterize it as a failure. Danielle Fuentes Morgan, a professor at Santa Clara University, counters that “in an ideal world, Black History Month wouldn’t be necessary. But we don’t live in an ideal world.”
Black History Month had its genesis in 1926. The idea emerged from the collaborative efforts of historian Carter G. Woodson, the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH) and Omega Psi Phi fraternity. While Woodson was earning his master’s degree from the University of Chicago and Ph. D from Harvard University in history, he witnessed how Black people were underrepresented in the books and conversations that shaped the study of American history.
After attending a celebration of the 50th anniversary of emancipation in 1915, Woodson founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH) throughout the diaspora. He formed the ASNLM to study the history and cultural contributions of Blacks. In 1924, Woodson persuaded the Omega Psi Phi fraternity to introduce a Negro history and literature program. Two years later, determined to bring greater attention to the project, Woodson and the ASNLH launched Negro History Week. Originally the week was observed in April; it was later moved to the second week in February. The February date was chosen to honor the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln on February 12th and Frederick Douglas on February 14th and to recognize the passage of the 15th Amendment which gave Black males voting rights on February 2nd, 1870.
Woodson and the ASNLH promoted the teaching of black history in public schools. He thought that learning black history was vital to the intellectual and physical survival of the race:
“If a race has no history, it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated. The American Indian left no continuous record. He did not appreciate the value of tradition, and where is he today? The Hebrew keenly appreciated the value of tradition, as is attested by the Bible itself. In spite of worldwide persecution, therefore, he is a great factor in our civilization. “
At first, Negro History Week received little support. The school districts in only 3 states and two cities participated: North Carolina, Delaware, West Virginia, Washington D. C and Baltimore.
However, by 1929, the idea of Black History Week had received wide support among the State Departments of Education in states with a sizeable Negro population. Churches and the Black press also played a significant role in disseminating literature. During the ensuing decades, the response and enthusiasm increased particularly amongst the middle class. During the early days of the Civil Rights Movement, Freedom Schools in the South embraced the week. Freedom Schools were developed by the Student Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to counter the poor education received by many African Americans. Despite the efforts of SNCC, suitable teaching material and resources were either non- existent or inaccessible. To remedy the scarcity, the ASNLH created a Negro History Kit, which included a 32-page pamphlet replete with poems, orations, plays and a 5-day teaching program. Notwithstanding these efforts by the mid-1960s, the most popular textbook for eight grade U. S. History classes only mentioned two Black people in the entire century after the Civil War. The textbooks did not comment on, among other things, the slave uprisings, the Ku Klux Klan, lynching, separate but equal, or white privilege.
The turbulent advent of the Black consciousness movement of the 60s and 70s would drastically alter the status quo. The spirit of the times was aptly crystalized by the James Brown recording, “Say It Loud I am Black and I’m Proud.” Brown’s call was heeded on several fronts. For one, identifying as Black replaced the negro label – and Black pride exploded. It also energized activism among Black university students. They demanded Black studies programs. For example, the students at San Francisco State University staged a prolonged strike to force their demands. University administration yielded to demand as the strike entered its fifth month. The university hired noted sociologist Nathan Hare to coordinate and write a proposal for a Black studies program. Subsequently, the first Black studies program was adopted at San Francisco State University in September of 1968.
It was not long before, the student activist concluded that a single week of recognition and celebration was inadequate. In 1969, the Black United Student Organization at Kent State University advocated for a month long celebration. The first celebration of Black History Month took place from January 31, 1970 – February 28, 1970. The extended period of the celebration was widely embraced in several states. The federal government, however, would not acknowledge the legitimacy of either a week or month long of observance until several years later.
In 1975 president Ford took the first step toward federal recognition. He issued a Message on the Observance of Black History Week urging all Americans to “recognize the important contribution made to our nation’s life and culture by black citizens.” Later, in 1976, Ford went further and issued the first Message on the Observance of Black History Month. Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Regan continued the call for a month-long observation.
In 1986 Congress passed Public Law 99- 244 which designated February 1986 as National Black (Afro- American) History Month. This law noted that February 1, 1986 would “mark the beginning of the sixth annual public and private salute to Black History. The law further directed the president to issue a proclamation calling on the people of the United States to observe February 1986 as Black History Month with appropriate ceremonies and activities.
Each year, ASNLH selects a theme for Black History Month. Often the theme relates to the anniversary of significant events in black history. The theme for 2020 was “Black Americans and the Vote” in recognition of sesquicentennial of the passage of the 15th amendment which gave Black males the right to vote. The theme for 2021 is “The Black Family: Representation, Identity and Diversity.”
Woodson envisioned that the celebration of Black History would extend to the entire diaspora not just in the United States. Throughout the diaspora, the contributions of those of African descent were left out of the mainstream history narratives. In the past three or so decades, several countries adopted observance to varying degrees.
In 1987, the efforts of a Ghanaian analyst, who served as special projects coordinator for the Greeter London Council convinced the United Kingdom to observe Black History each October. Four countries, other than the United States hold commemorations during the month of February: Germany, The Netherlands, Canada, and Ireland. A historian at Quinnipiac University notes:
“Black History Month in Ireland initiated in Cork in 2010. This location seems appropriate as in the 19th century, the city was a leading center of abolition, and the male and female anti- slavery societies welcomed a number of black abolitionist to lecture there, including Charles Lenox Remond and Frederick Douglas.”
The celebration and commemoration of African American’s cultural and historical contributions remains necessary and important – and arguably no less needed than it was in 1926. The need might be even more urgent given the current racial divide. A few years ago, many believed or perhaps were hopeful that, at least in America, we were living in a post racial era. As a result, the need to continue observing Black History Month was questioned. The notion of obsolete usefulness gave rise to strong retort. One commentator responded: “‘the suggestion that black history should be removed in favor broad American history becomes synonymous with “all lives matter.” And in practice erases Black people from the narrative of U.S. history.
Going forward, observance to remain relevant, must move beyond dates, events, and individuals. To be sure, this information has value but it must be juxtaposed, and integrated into broader context to become meaningful. The failure to do so results in, at best, a superficial understanding of historical contributions. Moreover, it lends credence to argument that Black history celebration has devolved to mere “hero worship”. Lastly, the commemoration in the United States could better serve the goals of Woodson by embracing and examining the contributions of Blacks throughout the diaspora.
Written by W. Ray Kwame Williams, graduate of Eastside High School Class of 1971, an assistant professor at the Rutgers Business School.