The man who inspired the creation of Black History Month (part 2)

Carter G. Woodson

A ‘cause’? For sure. Later scholars would suggest that such single-minded dedication to popularizing history left Woodson little time to uphold the exacting standards of ‘historiography’ in his own work, but he ensured that such standards were never sacrificed in the scholarship he published in The Journal of Negro History, which ranked with the most distinguished research periodicals in the country. But even as Woodson published and promoted the work of many academic historians, he found the academy stifling.

Although he taught briefly at Howard University, he remained a fiercely independent and unaffiliated scholar for the duration of his career. He broke early on with the academic tradition that tethers the scholar to one specialized field, and was, in this respect, an early proponent and practitioner of what we now call Interdisciplinary Studies. He edited a variety of source materials, for example: Negro Orators and their Orations, Free Negro Heads of Families in the United States in 1830, and Free Negro Owners of Slaves in the United States in 1830, The Mind of the Negro as Reflected in his Letters, all appearing in 1926; and the Works of Francis Grimke (1942).

Woodson’s monographs likewise spanned a range of subjects and disciplines, for example: labor and economic history (The Negro Wage Earner and The Negro Professional Man and the Community); religious studies (The History of the Negro Church); collective biography (African Heroes and Heroines); the history of education (The Education of the Negro Prior to 1861) and The Mis-Education of the Negro, a collection of essays and speeches, which first appeared in Black newspapers.

Woodson’s best-known work, especially among contemporary audiences, The Mis-Education is provocative, at times even sensational in its claims and is perhaps best regarded as a witty homiletic text, particular insights of which retain their relevance now almost 75 years later. Some of its ideas anticipate a range of concepts and conversations that scholars across the disciplines would initiate in the decades to come: ‘situated knowledge,’ ‘positionality,’ ‘cultural literacy.’ And in campaigning for the importance of international study in a well-rounded curriculum, Woodson can be seen to be an early proponent of ‘Global Studies.’

As he put it in The Mis-Education: “The world is not circumscribed by the United States, and the Negro must become a pioneer in making use of a larger portion of the universe.” Indeed, Woodson’s travels abroad did much to illustrate to him “how people should and should not be taught.” Traveling to China with a group of missionaries from the U.S., Woodson described one Todd, from North Carolina, who rushed headlong and unthinking into the missionary enterprise. He “had not been in China five months before he and his wife had been poisoned by their native cook who had become incensed at the way they interfered with the institutions of his people.” Woodson described a similar phenomenon in the Philippines where U.S. teachers trained at Harvard, Yale, Columbia, and Chicago, failed repeatedly in their efforts to teach Filipino children, all because they did not take into account the alienating materials of instruction they selected. In teaching music, the Americans began with ‘Come Shake the Apple Tree,’ though Filipino children had never seen such a tree. When they taught ‘Come Shake the Lomoy Tree,’ which students had actually done, teachers met with more success, just as they had in teaching reading. It was pointless to concentrate on the story of how George Washington always told the truth. Teaching Filipino children to read from books based solely on American myths and heroes would never prove successful, he maintained. Woodson readily complicated these positions by suggesting: “No people should ignore the record of the progress of other races. We say hold on to the real facts of history as they are, but complete such knowledge by studying also the history of races and nations which have been purposely ignored.”

Those who have dismissed Woodson’s commitment to the ‘cause’ of Black History as populist propaganda miss the larger point of Woodson’s multi-faceted enterprise. Even if one attempts to reduce Woodson’s investment in African American history to its popularizing objectives, it must still be conceded that Woodson was no less committed to developing the institutional structures that would promote the study of African American and African history and culture, and provide subsequent generations of scholars the support they needed to carry out their work. Without such structures, African American Studies could not claim the lasting and transformative effects on intellectual life. Woodson also understood that building and maintaining such structures was unimaginable without reliable funding streams.

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