Negro History Week in 1926 evolved into Black History Week in the 1960s, which further extended into Black History Month in 1976 and which is currently termed African-American History Month. It is celebrated in February because of Frederick Douglass’ and Abraham Lincoln’s birthdays.
Historian Carter G. Woodson and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History had the idea, in 1926, that if Americans knew the contributions of black people to the USA and to the world, white Americans would stop thinking that we were inferior and black Americans would take their rightful place, in human history, as geniuses, explorers, inventors, leaders and the like.
The word Negro went out of fashion with the 1960s black power movement and the word black in reference to people became African-American to focus on heritage rather than color. I previously said African-American History Month until I became friends with a Haitian woman from Canada. She asked me to say Black History Month because it includes all who are racially and culturally connected to Africa, no matter where we are scattered in the world. Black History Month is celebrated in Canada, where she lives, as well as in the United Kingdom.
It was seven years ago that I read a syndicated column in the Capital Times which advocated an end to Black History Month. The columnist noted that it was time for scholarship about Africa and the African diaspora to be included within general world history. I agreed with her except that I learned growing up in the South, “don’t get rid of what you have until after you receive something better.” I have plenty of life examples to support that wisdom.
One example is when I arrived at UW-Madison in 1977, a group of African-American students met with the late Eugene Parks, activist and truthsayer. We questioned him about why African-American students at the university had no specific space to gather, like a building similar to Hillel, which helps college students maintain their Jewish identity. There was nothing on the campus that helped college students maintain their African-American identity. We felt like trespassers in a strange land called Wisconsin, since most of us were from the South. We were bombarded with curriculum that did not include us, hostile professors and white folks who often stared or even came up to us, uninvited, and touched our braids. We didn’t know where or how to connect with the African-American community and most of us didn’t have cars to travel to them.
Parks shared the background that earlier African-American students gave up their “black house” because of the promise of a multi-ethnic center. The Afro-American and Race Relations Center of 1968 was closed in 1971 to make way for a multicultural center, which in 1977 did not yet exist. Parks apologized for not maintaining the gains that former students had fought hard to achieve.
The Multicultural Student Center would not be established until 1988 — it took 17 years for another space to be established. Today’s center has an entirely different definition of diversity.
I still say, in 2014, don’t stop focusing on the contributions of black people in Madison, in Wisconsin, in the U.S. and in the world until we finally have systems that include the truth about us.
Years ago in a Capital Times column, I asked why there were no photos of African-Americans and information on our contributions to Wisconsin exhibited anywhere in our Capitol. African-Americans were in Wisconsin since the 1700s as traders, explorers, and pioneers, both free and enslaved. They were soldiers and landowners, founded towns and two black settlements, were inventors, and the list could go on and on. Still there are no visible changes at our Capitol or in people’s minds as we begin Black History Month 2014. Black History Month is a small, strong, steady effort to keep black people, and the good that we are and the good that we do, visible.
Fabu, Madison’s former poet laureate, is a consultant in African-American culture and arts. She writes a monthly column for The Capital Times. firstname.lastname@example.org