It is More Than a Month


Today, the first day of Black History Month, the African American Intellectual History Society (AAIH) published an essential historiography by Stephen G. Hall tracing the roots of this celebratory month. “History as a Communal Act: The Creation of Black History Month” starts with a speech given in the early 19th century and ends with the communal digital projects of today. Hall argues in favor of Black History Month, as it is the celebration of communal acts of history and a catalyst for continuing engagement, or as he puts it,

“Black History Month, then, is more than a month-long celebration or an obligatory relic of an outmoded past. Rather it is and continues to serve as the catalyst for the transmission of a dynamic historical memory embedded in the collective striving of a global people to celebrate their historical past, affirm their humanity, and share the richness and vibrancy of their history as a communal act.”

In his article, Hall writes of the African Diaspora and the global span of black history. Diaspora is a lived experience and an essential of framing a global history of a community violently removed from their long history in their homeland. It allows for individual variations and disagreements as it traces the adaption of homeland histories and belief systems to lived experiences outside of the homeland as shown in art, literature, music, and history. My work on the Sheftalls took small steps in retracing how the fresh African diaspora interacted with the longstanding Jewish diaspora. I spotted hints of interaction as I read Olaudah Equiano’s fond memories of his mother and the ritual bathing practicing in his Interesting Narrative and I considered the Jewish niddah laws and the notation by Benjamin Sheftall of the opening of a mikvah in 1738, a ritual bathing house built near natural running water. Ritual bathing is intimately tied to menstruation and as such, is often left off the written record, but the shared practice of ritual bathing could have given space for women, enslaved to Jewish families, to continue their African practices on the shores of the Savannah river in Georgia. Diaspora is immediately communal and intimate.

Hall celebrates many of the people who worked hard to create communal spaces to share and preserve history, such as Carter G. Woodson. I feel a personal sort of gratitude to Woodson as I have utilized many of the primary testimonies he published as editor of the Journal of Negro History (1916).  Hall writes of Woodson’s approach to history, “Due to the small number of professionally trained historians, Woodson understood that the African American historical project must embrace the larger community as well as the professional and lay classes.” Woodson thought like our contemporary digital historians, bound to expand out of academia to the enthusiasts and lay person, but the truth is that Woodson and others were often excluded from academia and it was incumbent on them to create a space to write and preserve history– if not for Woodson’s journal, the racist claims of the Dunning School made by professional historians would have stood unanswered. If not for the diligent work done by historians such as John Blassingame, testimony from men and women of the African Diaspora would have been dismissed and lost by academia.

I see the opportunity of Black History Month in the age of social media, where we can connect to each other and share our knowledge of our past. I am not black, I am the descendant of white slaveholders, but I believe that black history is history and it should be learned all year round. I want to see black history put into the cannon.

Before reading The Great Gatsby, students should read Jean Toomer‘s, Cane. After all, Cane was published just a few years earlier and speaks to the American experience as much, if not more, than Fitsgerald’s mandated classic. Toomer’s book opens doors to talk about the art, music, and literature created in the Harlem Renaissance.

While learning about Eli Whitney and the invention of the cotton gin, students should also learn about Norbert Rillieux, one of the earliest chemical engineers whose invention on sugar refining is still in use today. Rillieux’s invention impacted the lives of the enslaved on plantations across Louisiana, where Rillieux also had to navigate his own racial identity.

The 1806 New Orleans record of Rillieux’s birth labels him as a “quadroon libre.” His father, Vincent Rillieux, a white French plantation owner and granduncle to famous French impressionist Edgar Degas and his mother, Constance Vivant, a free black woman from a prominent family, lived together in all but legal marriage and raised five children. Rillieux was educated in France before returning to Louisiana in the 1830s in a sugar boom, by 1843 he was installing his invention on plantations across the state. Then after the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, Rillieux returned to France for his own safety. I am easily caught by his story, as a student of labor and religion in the 19th century.

Today, most people who graduated high school remember reading The Great Gatsby in class and could probably name the inventor of the cotton gin, but likely have never enjoyed the quick motion from verse to prose of Toomer or considered the difficult choices made by Rillieux.

Black History Month is an important time to engage with history and to share history, but black history should by no means just be limited to one month. Black history is global history and this month I am thankful for the digital platforms that allow for historians to engage others with their work.

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