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.”