What does it mean to study Black history?
Black history is a movement of ideas targeted to redress the long history of anti-Blackness. Anti-Blackness is a totalizing system of thought that positions Black people, including their bodies, culture, and value systems, as bad or dysfunctional. But Black history does more than counter anti-Black ideologies; it also documents the social contexts, experiences, aesthetics, and intellectual pursuits of African Americans. This idea of both countering white racism and writing and creating from one’s standpoint—removed from the white gaze—is central to Black history.
Ideas and knowledge have an inextricable link to the physical and material realities of Black folk. It is not just history that has a role in spreading or debunking anti-Black ideas but also the arts, sciences, social sciences, advertising, and photography. Black history is thus part of a broader transformational movement across different disciplines.
White institutions have justified enslavement, segregation, lynching, disenfranchisement, and incarceration. Scientific and theological scholarship, for example, long sought to establish that Black inferiority was natural or ordained by God. Scientific theories that Black people were naturally inclined to enslavement, harsh labor conditions, and even physical abuse were omnipresent in the formation of American society and persisted through the 20th century. Thomas Jefferson’s influential book Notes on the State of Virginia, for example, propagated anti-Black ideas about skin color, beauty, and intelligence. In Jefferson’s account, Black people are “dull, tasteless, and anomalous.”
Even as popular written texts defended Black suffering, numerous African Americans throughout history have documented the horrors, absurdities, and contradictions of white racism through memoirs, speeches, and poems.
Frederick Douglass’ 1852 speech “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July” provides a powerful example of how African Americans used the rhetoric of American democracy to boldly highlight the conditions of Black life. Douglass first offered a humble and modest tone reflecting on the invitation he received to give the speech. He then followed with an exhaustive deconstruction of the history and democratic ideals of the Fourth of July. Finally, with a bold and irreverent turn, Douglass made clear that the plight of enslaved Africans stood in direct opposition to America’s founding ideals:
“Standing, there, identified with the American bondman, making his wrongs mine, I do not hesitate to declare, with all my soul, that the character and conduct of this nation never looked blacker to me than on this 4th of July! Whether we turn to the declarations of the past, or to the professions of the present, the conduct of the nation seems equally hideous and revolting. America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future. Standing with God and the crushed and bleeding slave on this occasion, I will, in the name of humanity which is outraged, in the name of liberty which is fettered, in the name of the constitution and the Bible, which are disregarded and trampled upon, dare to call in question and to denounce, with all the emphasis I can command, everything that serves to perpetuate slavery—the great sin and shame of America!”
However, Black history is more than a catalog of Black suffering and white racism. The founder of what would go on to become Black History Month, Carter G. Woodson, indeed started the Association of Negro Life and History in 1915 as a way to refute harmful ideas about Black people. But Black historical works offer more than a critique of the condition of being Black in America. In many cases, Black people lived, created, and provided insight into their lives without acknowledging the white canon.
Black history tells forgotten and ignored stories. This approach to redressing the forgotten and absent narratives is not just the purview of historians but also present in other disciplines such as photography and the arts. For example, photographer Roy DeCarava captured African Americans’ real-life experiences within their families and communities in the 1940s and 1950s. Similarly, in the first half of the 20th century, filmmaker Oscar Micheaux’s movies sought to present stories of African American life beyond the racist depictions of Black people in early cinema.
Black history is not a relic of the past; its ideas seek to combat the anti-Blackness present in schools today.
One of the most striking archives to show African Americans as everyday people is powerfully reflected in the photographic exhibit W.E.B. DuBois curated at the Paris Exposition of 1900, presenting Black people in churches, schools, military regalia, laboratories, and sports fields. In many respects, DuBois’ exhibit exemplifies the spirit of Black history in its efforts to show the full humanity of Black people.
Black history is not a relic of the past; its ideas seek to combat the anti-Blackness present in schools today. Black history fills gaps in the origin stories we tell in schools about civilization. It also helps students to reconceptualize the overwhelming absences and myths told in school curricula. Nikole Hannah-Jones’ reporting documents that the efforts to include Black history in schools and society are an ongoing struggle. It is not by mistake that Bettina Love implores educators to take on an abolitionist pedagogy in schools to combat blatant attempts to remove Black content from schools. As LaGarrett King has noted in his scholarship on a Black historical consciousness, teachers need to reconsider what they believe is historically essential and provide a different historical consciousness that focuses on Black people’s perspectives.
So, in the theoretical sense, Black history can be thought of as a two-part construct composed of ideas, art, philosophy, and culture that counter the white imagination while also speaking universally to the human condition. In the end, Black history exposes and expounds on the full spectrum of humanity: beauty, sadness, joy, perseverance, and love.
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A version of this article appeared in the February 02, 2022 edition of Education Week as The Expansiveness Of Black History