[Diocese of Texas] “When you control a man’s thinking you do not have to worry about his actions. You do not have to tell him not to stand here or go yonder. He will find his “proper place” and will stay in it. You do not need to send him to the back door. He will go without being told. In fact, if there is no back door, he will cut one for his special benefit. His education makes it necessary.” – Dr. Carter G. Woodson, “The Miseducation of the Negroe”
As the first African slaves were brought to Jamestown, Virginia in 1619, they stepped on foreign soil straight into a system that would redefine who they were and what they were. Forever gone were their family names, traditions and culture; forever gone was the pride instilled in each of them. An identity that was once connected by bloodlines was now almost untraceable.
From this point on, they would become women and men without purpose and without the hope of being anything more than property. The members of this caste system were now also the victims of identity theft.
From the slave trade, they found themselves truly lost in a foreign land, living among others who spoke different languages and originated from different tribes. Traveling through the middle passage, little by little, their entire identities were stripped away. Little by little the lives they once knew were faded memories, tossed overboard and lost at sea forever.
Those who were forced into slavery would become “strange fruit” (as described in the Billie Holiday song) and a part of a social system, which would force adaptation. Their very identities became defined through the perception of slave owners. But through it all – stolen from the shores of Africa and stripped of their native land – this courageous group of Africans would reshape and redefine life in America.
“For Africa to me… is more than a glamorous fact. It is a historical truth. No man can know where he is going unless he knows exactly where he has been and exactly how he arrived at his present place.” – Dr. Maya Angelou, author and poet
During the dawning of the twentieth century, it was commonly presumed that African-Americans had little history besides the subjugation of slavery. Carter G. Woodson, a son of slaves, received a bachelor and master’s degree from the University Of Chicago and in 1912, became the second African-American to receive a PhD from Harvard University. Woodson recognized the scarcity of information of blacks and founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. In 1926, he initiated the celebration of Negro History Week, which corresponded with the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. In 1976 this celebration was expanded to include the entire month of February.
Woodson, remembered as the Father of Black History, began to shed light on the richness of the African-American experience. Woodson understood the need to change the perception of African-Americans and to increase their self-worth. He wanted to free black history from the bias of whites in order to present blacks as true active participants in history. The rewards of doing this proved invaluable. It allowed blacks to begin to identify who they were for themselves and promoted social change. An awareness of African-American history is informative today to all people because it shares the contributions of many unsung heroes and she-roes who made their mark in America but still remained unnoticed.
Black History month informs all of us of a rich history where God intervened and led a people of faith into the promised land. This promised land erased identity theft so that African Americans could redefine and re-establish themselves as equals among all people. This month of celebration is a time to recognize the gifts of those who have gone before us. It acknowledges those whose backs we now stand upon and allows prejudice to be forced from the cracks and crevices which still plague communities all across America. Black History is still relevant to all today because it invites us to rethink how we can be continually challenged to imagine a different world, a better world, for all of God’s people.
I believe Dr. Woodson would feel that we still have much work to accomplish. We still must uplift the contributions of African-Americans as a model for our children and future generations. We still must realize the content and character of a person cannot be tied to ethnicity alone. I invite all to celebrate the advancements that have been made in our great country by African-Americans, realizing that a month is not enough time to remove the veils of hatred which still exist. May we each be encouraged to continue to work toward our promised land, where all are needed to truly make this the land of the free.
“Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.” – Harriet Tubman, African-American abolitionist and humanitarian
- The Rev. Glenice Robinson-Como is Canon Pastor at Christ Church Cathedral, Houston