Under President Gerald Ford, “Negro History Week” became Black History Month in 1976. Back when Jesse Jackson (far right) had an Afro. Credit: SUN-TIMES PRINT COLLECTION
Under President Gerald Ford, "Negro History Week" became Black History Month in 1976. Back when Jesse Jackson (far right) had an Afro.
Under President Gerald Ford, “Negro History Week” became Black History Month in 1976. Back when Jesse Jackson (far right) had an Afro.Credit: Sun-Times archives

On February 28, Chris Rock hosts the 88th Academy Awards ceremony—the “White BET Awards,” he tweeted last month, when for the second year in a row there were no black nominees in prominent categories and #OscarsSoWhite was taking off again.

Black History Month is like Chris Rock. It seems #AmericanHistorySoWhite we need something to acknowledge that, yes, there are black people here too. Ergo, Black History Month. That way, just like we can say, “Well, at least the host of the Oscars is black,” we can say, “Well, at least there’s Black History Month.” 

“Am I supposed to be grateful?” asks Lorraine Touissant of Orange Is the New Black in a video for an Essence series on the meaning of the observance. As the old joke goes, it figures that it’s in February—the shortest month of the year. “And the coldest—just in case we want to have a parade,” Rock cracks in another video for the series.

Actually, Black History Month grew out of Negro History Week, which was founded in 1926 by African-American historian Carter G. Woodson. He chose the second week of February to honor the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln (February 12) and Frederick Douglass (celebrated on February 14). It was rechristened and extended by Republican president Gerald Ford in 1976, the nation’s bicentennial, now 40 years ago.

Woodson started Negro History Week to address the subject’s absence from American history, especially as taught in public schools. According to a paper on the origins and purpose of Black History Month by black conservative think-tanker Stacy Swimp, Woodson believed that “if white Americans knew the true history of blacks in America and in Africa, it would help overcome negative stereotyping.”

Ultimately, Swimp says, Woodson’s hope “was that someday a special week or month would no longer be required in order to appropriately honor black Americans and their accomplishments. Black history is American history—and a year-round school curricula relevant to all.”

Still, many esteemed writers and historians ignore black history and culture altogether. American critic Edmund Wilson’s 800-page tome Patriotic Gore was a “sensation” a la Thomas Picketty’s Capital in the 21st Century when it came out in 1962, during the Civil War centennial. The book has illuminating sections on nearly 30 Civil War poets, statesmen, generals, and civilians, north and south. But Wilson considers only one black narrative, that of Charlotte Forten, the relatively privileged granddaughter of a freedman.

That’s it. Not even Frederick Douglass.

Granted, Wilson never pretended that the studies in Patriotic Gore were exhaustive. That doesn’t make his near-complete erasure of the black people who lived in the Civil War era any less appalling. Fact is, Yale historian David Blight writes in American Oracle: The Civil War in the Civil Rights Era, “Wilson simply took no interest in black literature, and seemed completely unaware of slave narratives.”

Well, OK, Wilson was a man of his time. That time has gone, though. We’re still struggling with systematic racism more than four decades after the Civil Rights Act of 1964. A first step in coming to terms with America’s original sin, slavery, and its toxic legacy is to stop presenting American history as if it were white history with a few black cameos here and there.

As Rock has said, when you’re black every month is Black History Month.