Names and History: Carter Woodson, Black History Month, and the Ongoing Work of History
Carter Woodson pictured here in his study.
My full name is Joshua Scharf Krug. In Hebrew, when I am called up to the Torah, I identify myself as Yehoshua Ben Mordechai Ve’Aviva.
What is your name?
What are the names of your parents?
What are the names of your grandparents?
In Jewish tradition, it is customary for babies to be named after relatives. The Sephardic custom entails naming babies after living relatives, while the Ashkenazi custom involves naming babies after deceased relatives.
For a moment, imagine what it would feel like if you neither knew your name nor knew the names of those who preceded you. Would that not be confusing? Disorienting?
The reason I bring this up is because names are associated with stories and stories are the stuff of history. The very field of history centers naming- learning names of people and things, giving names to processes, and interpreting the past (and the present).
This month, February, is Black History Month.
Negro History Week (which would later give way to Black History Month) was introduced in 1926. Carter Woodson, the visionary behind and founder of the week, was many things; among them, he was the only person in history whose parents had been slaves in the United States to go on to earn a PhD.
Negro History Week- which encompassed the anniversaries of Abraham Lincoln’s and Frederick Douglass’ birthdays- was to celebrate the contributions of overlooked people. From Woodson’s point of view, Black folks were variously misrepresented and absent in history, as regards how the discipline was taught and undertaken in the early 20th century. In the words of one late 20th century scholar, at the early 20th century time in question, “few American historians acknowledged that Afro-Americans had a history, or at least one worth investigating.”* This situation concerned Woodson who contended that Black folks could be more than “a negligible factor in the thought of the world”- and could only survive- if they had a history of their own.**
Woodson sought to remedy the situation by affirming that Black folks had a story, that Black folks had experiences that mattered. When he was unable to influence the direction of the American Historical Association, he proceeded to build alternative institutions.
Imagine feeling that you or your people do not belong in history. What would you do?
One of the most challenging things in the experience of learning is to see the unseen, to listen to the unheard. Woodson met this challenge, by undergirding a new history that took seriously the voices of the unheard- who had been silenced in a history that pushed them to the periphery (or beyond its pale). He sought to render visible people who had been, to invoke Ralph Ellison, “invisible.”
The goal was to see what could happen with the shifting of the historical lens. Because of his efforts, persons across the country encountered Black History and the Black experience was engaged in additional depth and nuance. Surely, many today (and historically) are not fans of Black History Month. Famously, Morgan Freeman said, “I don’t want a Black History Month. Black history is American history.”*** In a sense, this is a powerful critique of what Woodson contributed.
Nonetheless, to my mind, there is something powerful about what Woodson did early in the last century. He saw that the narrative of history- and of reality- was problematic, and he took action.
I thought of Woodson when 10th grade students at Kehillah Jewish High School articulated in Health and Wellness Class Seminar that their experiences mattered. Students shared that they know their experiences as kids better than adults in books know them. Select students shared that they know what it is to face anxiety and depression and/or to have friends who do. It was a powerful moment in which students articulated their interest in engaging what experts have to say- but doing so with a grain of salt. Students at Kehillah were listening to themselves and their peers and asking what it could look like to take them seriously as contemporary young people who know what it is to live.
One of the commitments at Kehillah is “everyone counts.” In a community where everyone counts, people know the names of others around them.
May this be true at Kehillah. May we know our own names, and may we learn each other’s names.
Likewise, may this be true beyond Kehillah- in history and in our contemporary time. May each of us learn the name of one person we do not know and may we say the name of one person we do not know.
This image was generated as part of the anti-slavery movement. Abolitionists were instrumental in the abolition of slavery in the United States in the nineteenth century.
*From the first page of Hine, Darlene Clark. “Carter G. Woodson, White Philanthropy and Negro Historiography.” The History Teacher 19.3 (1986): 405-425.
**See Woodson, Carter G. “Negro History Week.” The Journal of Negro History 11.2 (1926): 238-242.
***See Lee, Newton. “Google My Religion: Unraveling the Gordian Knot of Religious, Moral, and Political Entanglement.” Google It. Springer, New York, NY, 2016. 53-110.
Dr. Josh Krug
Director of Jewish Life & Learning