Black History Month, Day 1: Lessons for Institutionalizing Carter G. Woodson’s Vision

In 1926, Carter Godwin Woodson, out of the material and human resources derived primarily from Black communities, fashioned a Black-controlled public ritual dedicated to reviewing the results of the annual year-round study of what he called “Negro life and history.”  Woodson believed that the steady and regular accumulation and dissemination of factually sound research would spur common-sense efforts of Black America to transform our social, economic and cultural conditions.  Joining the creation of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, the creation of the Journal of Negro History and the Associated Publishers, and followed by the creation of the Negro History Bulletin, “Negro History Week” became another in his sequence of strategies to link the deep study of Black life to acts of community consensus and coalition building.  Nearly nine decades later, Woodson’s vision and strategies have been sorely misinterpreted, even by some who have fashioned careers from interpreting his work.


In the January 1943 issue of his Negro History Bulletin, Woodson gave what is still the best description of the purpose of “Negro History Week.”  The editorial for that volume reminds its loyal readership of schoolteachers and children, academics and rank and file members of his army of Black onlookers and co-conspirators that “this is the week set aside by the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History for the purpose of emphasizing what has already been learned about the Negro during the year.” In 1976, the Association expanded the weeklong celebration to a month, creating what we now call “Black History Month.” Three generations hence, the month has become a point of both celebration and derision, not to mention a revenue stream for everyone from television programmers and department store marketers to enterprising “public intellectuals” of all colors and motive.


Woodson would likely not be surprised by the heady mix of ignorance and free enterprise that now mark the year’s shortest month as the locus of discussions of race rather than a brief reflection period for the preceding year’s study of Africana. In the March, 1950 issue of the Bulletin published the month before he died at his 9th street home in Washington, DC, Woodson recognized that many in the Black community had effectively inverted and eviscerated the purpose of Negro History Week, turning it into a convenient cul de sac for engaging in fleeting considerations of “the race problem.” In a hard-hitting editorial titled “No Study and Consequently No Celebration,” Woodson addressed the problem head on, saying:



“It is evident from the numerous calls for orators during Negro History Week that schools and their administrators do not take the study of the Negro seriously enough to use Negro History Week as a short period for demonstrating what the students have learned in their study of the Negro during the whole school year.  These mischievous orators, as it has been said again and again in these columns, have no message which they can connect with the celebration of Negro History Week.  About the only thing on the Negro which they know is the traditional discussion of the race problem and how it has been or can be solved.”


Emphasizing that there were many schools in the country that were, in fact, “tak(ing) the study of the Negro seriously,” Woodson nevertheless warned against the encroaching conflation of external definitions of Black life and its possibilities—the idea that our existence would be reduced during February to variations of answers to the question Du Bois had argued lies behind most recognitions of Black life:  “how does it feel to be a problem?


            In 2005, when the School District of Philadelphia created the country’s first mandatory African-American History high school course in a major school district, we anchored the course curriculum framework in Woodson’s vision for institutionalizing Black-centered approaches to studying ourselves and the world.  Our framework included a series of lessons called “Intellectuals of the African Diaspora,” each lesson a self-contained essay with lesson plans and primary source materials that included representative female and male thinkers from every corner of the African world. 


The first person selected for a lesson would provide the overarching thematic arc for the entire course, with questions deriving from this thinker’s life and work providing tools for baseline inquiries for each six week module’s planning and scheduling timeline. In this manner, students would enter both the work and the mind of a Black scholar, aligning their own growing curiosity with the questions asked by their intellectual ancestors and seeing themselves as both receivers and producers of knowledge grounded in their experiences.


Our team considered and debated a wide range of exemplars, from W.E.B. Du Bois (for his multi and interdisciplinary pursuit of the study of Black life in local, national and international contexts) to Claudia Jones (for her working class, Pan-Africanist approach to Black international institution building).  Finally, we settled on Carter Woodson.  His technique for approaching Black life has, in many ways, never been surpassed.


I assigned myself the task of writing the first lesson in the series “Intellectuals of the African Diaspora: Carter G. Woodson” It is included here as it appears in the first edition of the School District of Philadelphia’s “Lessons in Africana Studies,” the companion volume that, with the comprehensive Planning and Scheduling Timeline, comprises the core of the mandatory high school course.  There is also included here a talk I gave at the District giving some background on the thinking that led to the creation of the lesson.


           I encourage you to read and use the lesson, its structure, questions and primary source documents in classrooms of all types and ages.  Among the primary source documents included in the lesson is a list of fifteen possible activities suggested by Woodson’s Association for activities students can undertake during February.  If you are so inclined, please share your experiences with us and each other, particularly those of your students.  I have also included links to the homepage of ASALH and the National Park Service’s Carter G. Woodson Home, which are portals to a bevy of materials useful to restructuring the way we approach the study African life, memory and vision, especially in February. 


If nothing else, the life and work of Carter Woodson demonstrates that the task of the learner, whether as apprentice or fully developed scholar, is to undertake the search for meaning with will, passion, accretive mastery of content and technique, and stamina, to see where the road leads.  What is all too frequently missing in the study of African humanity are roadmaps for self-created structures that afford African people the ability to engage in that search independently and at once in comparative, interactive tandem with other genealogies and modalities of human meaning.


I close this first February posting with the words of Woodson’s close friend and collaborator, Mary McCleod Bethune, written after his passing, published in the Journal of Negro History’s May 1950 issue, and included at the close of the lesson:


“I shall always believe in Carter Woodson. He helped me to maintain faith in myself. He gave me renewed confidence in the capacity of my race for development, and in the capacity of my country for justice for her own people and for all peoples. With the power of cumulative fact he moved back the barriers and broadened our vision of the world, and the world’s vision of us.”

Literacy, Liberation and Historically Black Colleges and Universities


The third week of September, 2013 was proclaimed “National Historically Black Colleges and Universities Week” by President Barack Obama. In a proclamation, he observed that HBCUs met and meet the need of higher education “focused on meeting the intellectual curiosity and spurring the academic growth of African American Students.”  We will shortly move into the second month of the year, a sweet spot in the academic calendar for deep study free from the anxiety of mid-terms and buoyed by the eminent return of Spring and, for some, the finish line of graduation.  It is a perfect time to revisit the linkages between Black learning institutions and the mission of so-called "Black History Month," a time that Carter Godwin Woodson said should be set aside for inventorying what we have done the rest of the year to advance the study of African people.


How best to accomplish the goal of linking literacy, memory and liberation through Black learning institutions has never been a settled proposition for Africans seeking to produce Black professional thinking classes working for group liberation.  As we are reminded in tome after tome, the concept of the university conceals a Western intellectual genealogy and structure, one that hides its normative assumptions beneath a modern demographic subterfuge by counter-posing the foundations of “predominantly” White institutions against those of “historically” Black ones.  This was a subterfuge that W.E.B. DuBois debunked nearly a century ago and that academic communities such as Howard attempted to take major strides towards dismantling with initiatives such as the 2010 Presidential Commission on Academic Renewal (PCAR). Sadly, we continue to stand at a crossroads, tentative and unsure if we will complete the work of deep reflection and reconnection to clear purpose in the face of intrusive, noisy distractions that whisper “you must first seek permission” into our collective ears.


Grounded in the idea that learning and literacy are Western propositions with, at best, some non-essential, non-Western accessorizing, historically Black educational institutions continue to use externally-derived intellectual and institutional markers to feed the intellectual curiosity of students and faculty they attract, ostensibly for the purpose of group growth and achievement.  The cruel irony in this behavior is that group progress in nurturing the linchpin activities of Black intellectual life— developing deep critical literacy and content mastery to serve group progress—is promoted by celebrating individuals whose achievements are frequently lauded for being indistinguishable from the objectives and values of a society that has maintained a deep hostility to the group progress of Black people.


How best, then, to promote the deep critical literacy and content mastery necessary to meet intellectual curiosity, spur academic growth and blend the aspiration of individuals with the needs of groups of oppressed people?  Here, memory must meet vision, in service of a perpetually unsatisfied desire to know and to act to transform one’s self and the world.  HBCUs produce steady streams of students and scholars who do this work.  The time is long overdue to recognize and to leverage these critical masses, without apology or defense. We will be better for it. The world will be better for it. The alternative is to subsist, perhaps, but not to grow, under the indifferent gaze of imaginary masters as others prepare for the new world a’coming.


In September 2013, shortly after the issuance of President Obama's proclamation, the internationally-reknowned Howard University Film Professor and filmmaker Haile Gerima related a conversation he had with a fellow Black director to over 1,000 members of the College of Arts and Sciences Class of 2017. He was asked how he produced his internationally-acclaimed 1993 film “Sankofa,”  a film with no contrived “point of entry” (industry-speak for a “sympathetic white character” that would make an otherwise unappealing Black narrative attractive to White audiences). The director told Gerima, “they would never let me make something like that.  Gerima replied, “to say ‘they would never let me’ is to have masters.  I have no masters.  I let myself.”


This is a statement of character.  It is a statement born of critical literacy and content mastery.  It is a statement of a free human being, unwilling to hide questions on the complexity of life behind the expectations of others. Successful intellectual work is not measured by its indistinguishable or accessorizing characteristics.  It is measured by its capacity to communicate, improvise and leverage the collective experiences and imaginations of people as a tool for enhancing each participant and the groups whose lives they hope to improve.  Deep literacy requires long, sustained practice.  A search for illuminating frameworks and devices (the search for theory). Debate, discussion and defense of ideas. 


Over the next few weeks, as part of an attempt to engage and renew my personal commitment to advance the work and vision of Carter Woodson for how we use the month of February, I hope to consider literacy in the context of specific intellectual practice, drawing from exemplary, Black institutional learning situations to illustrate specific techniques for pursuing work. 



Amiri Baraka (1934-2014): Mean to Be Free

The life of Amiri Baraka (1934-2014) embodies the refusal to let others shape the memories, desires and destinies of African people, or to decide for us how to narrate or utilize our experiences in the long struggle for liberation and a fuller humanity beyond. In his physical absence, we are left to consider the creeping disappearance of first-rate Pan-African internationalist artists/organizers/thinkers as representative figures in Black (and non-Black) public spheres.  Baraka did not let oppression—including racial oppression—hide behind niceties and subterfuges, realizing that such cowardice allows it to harden into ideologies of power and cultural identity. Oppression has to be confronted, directly. This earned him the enmity of those who fear such exposure and the timid proximate solidarity of those who can tepidly acknowledge him now that he is safely dead.



Baraka’s gifts included the ability to produce a steady stream of texts (poetry, plays, essays, books, paintings, lyrics, et. al.), shaped by his considerable intellect and wedded to the difficult but necessary work of organizing communities.  He could say more in a word or phrase than others can say in volume(s).  He led, wed, divorced, shaped and/or joined a bevy of organizations and social movements, his intellectual DNA flowing through the Black Body Politic for over fifty years. Baraka’s voice anchored us, from the Black Arts Movement’s catalyzing of a “Black Value System” to the post-Gary 1972 acceleration of Black American electoral politics (that made possible, incidentally, the election of Barack Obama), to the revolutionary solidarity and internationalism of third world struggle to the local politics of his beloved New Ark and the current people’s campaign of his son, Ras, for its mayoralty.


Baraka’s passing has all of us revisiting the times we spent with him and his contemporaries. We are obliged to revisit and reflect on these times, share our memories with current and future generations, and use them to shape new vistas of creative purpose in our collective work. I encountered him, listened to him, talked, laughed, plotted with and observed him primarily in meeting places of struggle as much or more as in more select and intimate spaces. I always left him wondering how we could allow him (and those artist/warriors of his generation) to be so undervalued by our communities and the society that continues to hold us hostage to the figures they declare should be our icons. There is no one in a white world to compare him to. To call him a Renaissance Man would be to insult the struggle he waged to define ourselves on our terms, though it would evoke memories of two of his inspirations, Paul Robeson and Malcolm X.


Nearly three thousand people attended Amiri Baraka’s funeral last Saturday at Newark Symphony Hall.  No one there had to be told of his significance, to us and to the world he inhabited for 79 years. Danny Glover and Woodie King, Jr. presided over a flood of tributes from every ideological corner of the African world. A large contingent of Howard faculty, staff, students and alumni were present, bearing an official resolution from the Board of Trustees. This for a man who saw no contradiction in critiquing 1950s Howard as a place where “they teach you how to pretend to be white” as he drank from the genius of its resident Master Teacher in the ways of Black folk, Sterling Allen Brown. In a fitting closure of the Howard loop, one of Baraka’s mentees, the indomitable Tony Medina, opened the program with a magnificently Barakian poetic tribute/charge.


Many—including many in attendance in Newark on Saturday and many more now fitting essays, tributes and commentaries to the contortionists’ task of praise without damning proximity—are temporarily basking in Baraka's glow of radicalism while seeking to avoid any possible punishment from an American society that will never see him for who he was (or us for who we are, for that matter). Funerals are indeed for the living, and people who speak at them consistently reveal more about themselves than they do the departed. Saturday's ritual was no exception: The substratum of struggle was amply and beautifully represented. So too was the repurposing impulse, trending to downright comedy. I only wish that Baraka could have added one more piece to his 2002 collection of eulogies for his friends and comrades:  A loving, acerbic and insightful essay analyzing his own death ritual.


Even former Governor Jim McGreevy—whose 2002 attempt to “fire” Baraka from being New Jersey’s Poet Laureate led to the elimination of the position—was there, quietly in the crowd, a pre-Christie victim of gubernatorial hubris and American hypocrisy, present perhaps for a shot at redemption.  Corey Booker was safely absent, as was CNN, which had live broadcast the funeral of Baraka’s fellow New Jerseyian Whitney Houston two years earlier.  No need to let a speaking subaltern disturb the slumbering façade of the rest of America, after all.


There are those, however, who do speak usefully in the wake of Baraka’s passing. Amid the babbling river of reflections, there are those that merit particular attention, in my estimation. These include one by one of his closest friends and collaborators, our own Eleanor Traylor, and one by one of the most studied and natural extenders of his Afro-bricolage approach to cultural criticism, Howard alum Greg Tate.  I will not close this column by rehearsing the arc of Amiri Baraka’s experiences, education and achievement. That is for this young readership to respect themselves and him enough to do for themselves. Instead, I will close with a memory that contains a charge of its own. 


Shortly after the election of Barack Obama, Amiri and Amina Baraka and many of their contemporaries attended a conference at Temple University on Black Power and the importance of intergenerational linkages. Delivering the conference’s closing keynote address, I talked about the fact that these women and men, now being leveraged as cultural fodder for contorted academic monographs and pop culture posturing, had once been branded enemies of the American social order for their unapologetic, revolutionary efforts. Having survived and paved the way for us, so many of them, now elders, were owed the debt of being engaged, their unfinished work extended, the renewed battles joined. Afterward, Baraka pulled me close and needled me, as always, with what I always took as encouragement and gracious overstatement: The assurance that talk like that is what gets you fired.


Baba Amiri, as you well knew (and know as an Ancestor) and showed us every day, talk like that—and the actions that accompany it—is what gets you free.