February is Black History Month. It is the brainchild of a Black scholar, Dr. Carter G. Woodson.
He's known as the father of a time of year when all Americans can join in commemorating African American achievements, events and notable figures. First launched as “Black History Week,” it started in 1926. The chosen month was in remembrance of President Abraham Lincoln’s birth, as well as the influence of Lincoln and abolitionist Frederick Douglass.
Woodson’s idea spread slowly. Now, however, it is an international period recognized in Ireland, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and, of course, the United States.
Woodson was born in poverty in 1875. As a young boy, he had to do odd jobs to help his family. This prevented him from attending elementary school, and it wasn’t until much later that he was able to get a high school diploma.
But he was a voracious reader who was largely self-taught in his early years. He loved learning, and he read everything he could get his hands on – especially material concerning African Americans.
After finally graduating from high school, Woodson attended Berea College, received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Chicago and was the second African American (after W.E.B. DuBois, “Souls of Black Folk”) to earn a doctoral degree from Harvard.
Throughout, his primary interests remained two-fold. First, through his wide reading and formal studies, he learned that African Americans were rarely included in history books; second, African American history as presented in school books was distorted and pathetic.
I believe those interests are still pertinent. Although it is almost a cliché to say “Black history is American history” these days, in general, Black History Month, as far as I can see, is treated in a similarly superficial way.
It consists mostly of famous Black “firsts,” Black inventors, Black events and other anecdotal information about the African American experience in America. The intersectionality between the Black experience in the historical, hyper-race conscious ethos of our society is not explored.
Although we have greater access to information than ever in history, we consistently fail to get, not just information, but understanding. One of the reasons for this, I believe, is that we do not read much anymore. Americans spend on the average 11 to 13 hours a day watching television, using our smartphones, or getting sound-bite information whenever we want it.
By contrast, on average, Americans spend only a matter of minutes per day reading. And so, in the interest of deepening our understanding of the racial and social justice issues that have shaped America, I urge you to read more.
We can learn a lot more through reading than we can from watching television or using social media platforms (although Audible and Kindle) are great. I’d guess a quarter of all the great Black or white inventors, politicians and businessmen who helped shape this country had very little formal education. Like Woodson, they were self-taught.
There was a time when learning took place through apprenticeships or mentoring, along with a lot of discipline and commitment to acquiring knowledge that led to expertise in a certain area.
Some of our early presidents, like Zachary Taylor, Abraham Lincoln, and others were largely self-taught. For that matter, people like Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates did not have college degrees. What they had was vision, passion for their work, and the know-how of getting things done.
And so, don’t be embarrassed to be caught reading or just skimming through a book. For example, there is a fascinating book titled “Mr. Lincoln’s Cameraman: Mathew Brady by Roy Meredith.” Brady was the official photographer for the Union Army, and the book provides wonderful pictures and information that helps us understand the Civil War.
As far as Black History Month is concerned, is it not useful to know that nearly 200,000 Black soldiers fought in that terrible war, on both Union and Confederate sides? Is that not important? Is that not at least a partial authentic response to the notion that Black history is American history?
We are in what may be the most challenging time since the founding of this country. We need to know more, understand more, and open our minds to the stores of knowledge available to us. If nothing else, so say the experts, reading is a healthful exercise for the brain. Read!
Have a nice day.