This month at Emory we join the nation in celebrating the annual
observance of African American History Month. Carter Woodson founded
the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH)
in 1915 and introduced Negro History Week (the genesis
of our contemporary monthly observance) in 1926.
Woodsons story, like so many of African descent in his generation,
included consistent struggle to overcome extraordinary odds. Born
in 1875, Woodson emerged from the cotton fields and coal mines of
Virginia and West Virginia to become Dr. Woodson with
a Ph.D. in history from Harvard University. When he received his
degree in 1912, Woodson became arguably the first of slave parentage
in black America to do so (Woodsons parents were slaves, unlike
the free black ancestry of DuBois, the first black to earn a Ph.D.
in history in 1895).
The Good Doctor, as he was sometimes affectionately
called, later traveled extensively throughout Africa, Europe and
the Caribbean, researching and recording the historical experiences
of African peoples. Yet even then, he did not spend all his time
in the archives. Woodsons travels abroad awakened him to the
harsh realities of black life under colonialism.
Woodson was convinced that colonial powers (which included the
United States) presumed peoples of African descent had little history
worth recording or had made few, if any, contributions to human
civilization. History, Woodson concluded, reflected
a Euro-centered view of the worlda narrative of
European and American accomplishmentsbuilt upon the backs
of enslaved and colonized peoples, whose history (and
herstory, by the way) commenced only with European arrival
on their shores.
It is now common knowledge that Woodson also believed the invisibility
of African peoples in the historical literature (and subsequently
history textbooks) wreaked havoc on black self-esteem, providing
another roadblock to an emancipatory group ideology. To correct
and contribute to a counter-narrative of historical experience became
Woodsons life work.
This months observance sent me whirling back into the past
as I reflected on my longstanding and deep connections to the principles
and convictions of Woodsons vision. I left the military on
Aug. 4, 1970, convinced that college was the next step and that
eventually I would major in both history and African American studies
at Howard University in Washington. It was in that period, between
May 1970 and February 1974, that I really discovered the importance
of Woodsons vision, the ASALH (renamed the Association for
the Study of African American Life and History) and its distinguished
journal, The Journal of Negro History.
Between my full-time job as a factory worker on the graveyard
shift and taking at least three classes at a local community
college, I managed to do some labor organizing for the Black Workers
Coalition (part of the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movementor
DRUMin Detroit), serve as the president of my schools
black student organization (called the Black Students Union) and
work in a couple of other black organizations.
In addition I operated an independent African-centered community
school (there were plenty of them in those days) on Saturdays in
the housing project where I grew up and spent most of my time. It
was the work at the school that I enjoyed most, which led me directly
to the ASALH with its annually packaged Black History Kit.
I needed to know more, so I went to the ASALH annual conference.
I had read all of the standard fare that all participants in the
Black Power Movement were expected to read, and I could rapthen
defined as talking ad infinitum about black experiences, our conditions,
the white man, etc.with the best of them.
But this was different. As I perused the seemingly unending display
of books at the conference hotel, I happened upon the Journal
of Negro History with its detailed scholarly articles of every
subject imaginable on Africa, the United States and practically
everywhere else in the Diaspora. I quickly purchased a subscription.
Before I left Louisville to attend Howard in 1974, I read articles
from the journal that helped me to think historically about my activism.
I was particularly struck by articles on the development of black
education in the United States and throughout the Diaspora, which
became a major focus of my own scholarly work. This information
was indispensable to my work at the Saturday school, and I continued
to think and read about these issues even after I left Louisville
for Washington. So much of Woodsons vision helped me to bridge
the gap between town and gown, to use history specifically
in community initiatives that would in my view contribute to the
liberation of African and other oppressed peoples everywhere.
Two important concepts are often overlooked in our commemorations
of Woodsons vision and his contribution to interracial understanding
both in and outside of the academy. First, as we have seen in Woodsons
own work, black life experiences went beyond just those of black
Americans. However, the monthly observance rarely reflects the existence
of an Africa Diaspora and the connections between experiences in
Africa and elsewhere.
Though it occurred with obviously the best intentions, renaming
the observance African American (instead of Black)
History month more than a decade ago may have contributed to this
more limited celebration of African experience. That, however, might
soon change. Increasingly the observance is being called African
American or African Heritage Month though Im not yet
quite sure what these terms mean within the context of the monthly
observance. More promising is the amount of immigration of African
peoples from all over the Black World into the United
States (especially Atlanta). Africans, and folk from elsewhere in
the Diaspora, are increasingly demanding recognition of their experiences,
and in my mind that is a good thing. It more reflects the work of
Woodson and his vision.
The second concept often overlooked in our celebration of Woodsons
vision is the link he made between academic excellence and social
responsibility to community outside the ivory tower.
Ironically, we at Emory also celebrate this month the 30th anniversary
of our own African American Studies Program, and I could not refrain
from thinking about obvious connections. Led by Delores Aldridge
and other founding directors more than 30 years ago, programs like
ours and others across the country built a discipline generally
accepted in the academy that privileges equally academic excellence
and social responsibilitythe inextricable link between town
I often say I think it is a privilege to live in the metropolitan
Atlanta area where Emory is located, and with that privilege comes
an obligation. For that reason we need to use whatever
skills we have in the academy to help solve the myriad of problems
that exist in our larger community.
Though usually unacknowledged in our annual monthly observance,
Woodsons vision and work in many ways contributed to this
paradigm, fully developed by many in black or Africana studies programs
in the late 60s and early 70s. On the academic excellence
side, Woodsons vision served as an oppositional force to counter
racism in the academy and provided a perspective often missing in
academia and then in mainstream scholarly journals.
Yet Woodson also was acutely aware of the problems existing within
African communities outside of the academy and used his skills as
a scholar to influence the policies of organizations directly involved
in social problems of the rank and file. I hope someday that our
celebration of the African American History Month annual observance
will include a broader recognition of black life experiences and
help lift up for all Woodsons vision of academic excellence
and social responsibility both within and outside of the academy.