By MARIAN WRIGHT EDELMAN
Children’s Defense Fund
“Those who have no record of what their forebears have accomplished lose the inspiration which comes from the teaching of biography and history.”
– Dr. Carter G. Woodson
Dr. Carter G. Woodson, the son of former slaves, a pioneering Harvard-trained historian, and the founder of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, created Negro History Week in 1926 to help give this record and inspiration to other African Americans. At the time Woodson was alarmed because so few people, White or Black, knew anything at all about Black people’s achievements. He would even meet other Black college history professors who had no idea Blacks had made any significant contributions to national or world history. Woodson understood just how critical it was to claim our rightful place in the history books and teach future generations about the great thinkers and role models who came before us.
Negro History Week was originally celebrated during the second week of February to coincide with Frederick Douglass’s and Abraham Lincoln’s birthdays. Eventually the single week grew into Black History Month, but through the years the celebration’s symbolism and importance remained the same. It has taken on new resonance in the wake of the racial reckoning of the past year. For Woodson, Black history matters was an early way of affirming that Black lives matter.
Woodson was especially concerned about the “mis-education” of Black children from their earliest ages – “The thought of the inferiority of the Negro is drilled into him in almost every class he enters and in almost every book he studies” – and the cumulative effects it could have. He wrote: “When you control a man’s thinking you do not have to worry about his actions. You do not have to tell him not to stand here or go yonder. He will find his ‘proper place’ and will stay in it. You do not need to send him to the back door. He will go without being told. In fact, if there is no back door, he will cut one for his special benefit. His education makes it necessary.” He believed teaching children about Black history and Black accomplishments was a crucial corrective step.
We now understand the wisdom behind teaching not just Black children but all children Black history, just as we make sure all of our American stories are being told as we prepare our next generations for our multicultural nation and world. Black and Native American and Latino and Asian American and women’s and non-propertied men’s and LGBTQ and immigrant history are all American history. None of our children can afford miseducation and ignorance about the rainbow of others around them. And none of our children should ever believe their own history and existence are marginal, unimportant, inferior, or only worthy of the back door.
Woodson was also very clear that celebrating our rich Black history of struggle and courage was not the same as getting stuck in the past. Instead, if we are going to understand the present and protect the future we need to understand where we came from and what it took to get us here. During Black History Month and every month we can use the extraordinary leaders from our history as examples to help us with the critical task of preparing this generation of children to be the new leaders our community and nation need right now. As Woodson also taught us: “The world does not want and will never have the heroes and heroines of the past. What this age needs is an enlightened youth not to undertake the tasks like theirs but to imbibe the spirit of these great [men and women] and answer the present call of duty.” I hope all young people will find someone in history or among the great elders and ancestors in their own families who inspires them to answer that call today and write the next chapter for tomorrow.
Marian Wright Edelman is founder and president emerita of the Children’s Defense Fund whose mission is “Leave No Child Behind.” For more information, visit https://www.childrensdefense.org.