Dr. Carter G. Woodson
Correcting the Master Narrative of America
“If you lie about anybody’s history you must lie about it all…
Which means If I am not what I have been told I am
You are not what you have been told you are either”
Although most Americans appear oblivious or indifferent to it, February is Black History Month. In black communities all across the nation it is a time for celebrating the struggles and achievements of our great ancestors. It began as “Negro History Week,” when it was established by Dr. Carter G. Woodson in 1926 – during the cultural revivalist movement known as “The Harlem Renaissance” – and later extended to Black History Month during the turbulent anti-racist struggles of the 1960’s. Dr. Woodson, who held a PhD in history from Harvard, founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History in 1915 – a period when the public crucifixion of Afro-Americans called “lynching” had averaged three a day since 1882 – in an effort to rescue black people from extinction in America.
Like the great Civil Rights/labor leader A. Phillip Randolph, a founder of the Brotherhood of sleeping Car Porters, Dr. Woodson believed this effort at racial uplift should be financed by Afro-Americans themselves. Hence, rather than seek grants from white controlled government or private agencies and organizations, Woodson sold memberships to the Association. As a return on their investment members received the Negro History Bulletin, a publication of the ASNLH that presented fascinating facts about the accomplishments of their race. Black people of all nationalities and classes bought memberships; it was a model of successful academic entrepreneurship rarely. if ever, equaled by a project in the humanities. Harvard’s Henry Louis Gates’s Encarta Africana project may be the exception, but his project was financed by a corporate partnership not black community financing.
A voluntary group of professional scholars – black and white – the ASNLH is dedicated to excavating and publishing the history black people, employing state of the art research methods. In 1916, only a year after founding the Association, Dr. Woodson established the Journal of Negro History, to publish the findings of the new historians he was training for peer review and public consumption. To understand the enormous importance of Dr. Woodson’s efforts, it is enough to point out that all of the great Afro-American historians who emerged in the first half of the 20th century studied with him. Among these are the distinguished historians Rayford Logan and John Hope Franklin, both like Woodson, holders of the Harvard PhD in history. Dr. John Hope Franklin has evaluated Woodson’s contribution in “The Place of Carter G. Woodson in American Historiography.”
Dr. WEB DuBois, the first Afro-American to earn a PhD from Harvard in 1895, and in 1896 Harvard published his thesis “The Suppression of the African Slave Trade.” The first scientific historical study of Afro-Americans, spoke of Woodson in heroic terms.
“Woodson literally made this country, which has only the slightest respect for people of color, recognize and celebrate each year, a week in which it studied the effect which the American Negro has upon the life, thought and action in the United States. I know of no one who in a lifetime has, unaided, built up such a national celebration.”
A more expansive view of Dr. Woodson, and what Dr. Dubois thought of him can be found in “Reconsidering the Souls of Black Folk,” a book of two interpretive essays on Dr. DuBois by Stanley Crouch and the present writer.
Yet it is quite enough to say that Dr. Woodson dedicated his life and career to setting the historical record straight regarding the contribution of black folks to American civilization because he was convinced that their survival in the US depended upon it. Looking around the world Woodson witnessed the destruction of Native Americans; the growing extinction of the Australian Aborigines; the Maori people of New Zealand; and the atrocities of the Belgium King Leopold II in the Congo.
Leopold’s crimes so outraged the great white American writer. Mark Twain, that he moved to denounce the Belgium King and catalogued his horrendous crimes in “The Soliloquy of King Leopold.” These events convinced Woodson of the gravitas and urgency of his historical project, because he was convinced that western nations that considered themselves “civilized” were quite willing tolerate genocide against peoples they considered sub-human and thus expendable in the advance of western civilization. The native “American Indian” offered a home grow example of the fate that could befall Afro-Americans.
Although the world has turned upside down in the century that has passed since Dr. Woodson founded the ASNLH, I believe those who argue that Black History Month celebrations is an anachronism, a relic from a bye gone era that has outlived its usefulness in a nation that has elected an African American president twice, are tragically mistaken. As I write there are attempts to scrub the historical record of shameful facts about America’s bloody history of racial oppression and genocide led by politicians in several states: Arizona, Virginia, Texas, et. al.
This is no picayune matter; it is an organized effort to suppress information that contradicts a master narrative that portrays American civilization as the “essential nation” the “shining city on the hill,” founded on the principle that “all men are created equal,” and has always promoted “liberty and Justice for all.” Since it is these claims upon which the “American Exceptionalists” base their vision of the world, any counter-narrative which contradicts that vision must be denied – no matter what the facts say.
This is why the struggle to teach black history – without which there can be no valid “American” history – must continue. And Black History Month is the most powerful vehicle for raising the consciousness of the nation on the need to take a candid look at itself.. For as the Harvard philosopher George Santayana warned: “Those who refuse to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat its mistakes.”
Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem, New York
Black History Month, 2018