“A people without the knowledge of their history are like trees with no roots to the ground.” -Marcus Garvey
Truly, the importance of knowing one’s history cannot be overemphasized. History is the very knowledge which governs the general progression of our lives and without it, there can be little certainty in our future. When it comes to African Americans understanding the black past, no one has played a greater role than Carter G. Woodson. It was Woodson, the second black American to receive a Ph.D. in history from Harvard, who created Negro Week in Washington, D.C, in February 1926.
According to him, the black experience was too important and immense simply to be left to a small group of academics. It was more like a conviction for him that his role was to use black history and culture as a weapon, in the struggle, to uplift the black race. By 1916, Woodson had moved to DC and established the “Association for the Study of Negro Life and Culture,” an organization created to make it possible for a larger audience to access to black history.
It is said that Carter Woodson was a strange and driven man, whose only passion was history; and it was his dream that everyone would share his passion.
Incidentally, it is important for young Africans to know that beyond slavery, there are so many moments of black past that need more documentation by Africans in other to capture the way it was experienced. Young Africans should realize, there’s no life in the history told by strangers. If the history of the black past must be told, then let it be from the lips of those whose ancestors were the characters that gave birth to the story.
Thus, the need to document our history should become a priority for every person of color. Young people must learn to talk to the elders and cultural custodians to know what came before us. We should not only ask them to give a firsthand actual account of the past but also write it down when it is given. We must write it down to save it from dying; our history is being buried every time an elder dies.
Woodson knew this too well that’s why he had to create Negro History Week in 1926, to ensure that school children be exposed to black history. He chose the second week of February in order to celebrate the birthday of Lincoln and Fredrick Douglas.
It is important to emphasize that Negro Week wasn’t born out of nothingness. As a matter of fact, history has it that there was a time when the interest in Africa American culture was beyond usual. It was during the 1920s and was represented by the Harlem Renaissance, where writers like Langston Hughes, Georgia Douglass Johnson, and Claude McKay wrote about the joys and sorrows of blackness.
At that same time musicians like Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Jimmy Lunceford captured the new rhythm of cities, created in part by the thousands of southern blacks who migrated to urban centers like Chicago, artists like Aron Douglass, Richard Barthe, and Lois Jones created images that did only glorify blackness, but also painted the African America experience with positive colors.
It was this ‘spirit of black creativity’ Woodson aimed to make the core of his movement as he moved to stimulate interest through Negro History Week. The historian had two goals in mind: One of them was to prove to white Americans that blacks had played an important role in the creation of America and thereby deserve to be treated as equal citizens. The other was to bring black life and history to the forefront of positive events, in a time when no one took interest in the black community, except for the bad.
Nevertheless, it is sad to admit that the effort of Carter Woodson might go to waste if young people of color fail to play their part in upholding the pride and beauty of the black race. This feat can only come to be when the knowledge of black past abounds. Not in the absence of it… not in the consumption of distorted stories conjured by enemies of our race.