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Q&A: Prof. Aldridge on Black History Month, Then and Now

Dan Aldridge
Prof. Daniel Aldridge.

History Prof. Daniel Aldridge, born in Nashville and raised in New York City, has written about the history of African-American civil rights activism from the Civil War period to the present, and about African Americans' efforts to influence U.S. foreign policy in the 1930s and 1940s. He received his B.A. from Michigan State University, his J.D. from Northwestern University and his Ph.D. from Emory University. Aldridge is the author of Becoming American: The African American Quest for Civil Rights, 1861-1976. In the following Q&A, Aldridge discusses the history and significance of Black History Month.

Q: What is the history of Black History Month?

A: Dr. Carter G. Woodson, a pioneering academic who completed his Ph.D. at Harvard in 1912, began the celebration of Negro History Week in 1926. This was at a time when you couldn't buy books about African-American history in a bookstore or check them out of a library. If black history didn't come down through your family, or if you didn't read The Crisis magazine, you didn't get it.

Woodson's goal was to get people, including black people, to teach then-Negro history in schools, and in African-American churches, civic organizations, sororities and fraternities. All those groups embraced it from the start.

Q: When did the week grow to encompass the full month of February?

A: I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s in New York City, and you had different groups of people in different areas of the city, and every group got recognized throughout the month. Black History Month was already celebrated there at that time. It was officially recognized in 1976, the year of the Bicentennial.

Woodson
Carter G. Woodson.

Q: Why February?

A: The original Negro History Week was celebrated the week of Lincoln's birthday.

Q: How have perspectives on Black History Month changed, and why is it important?

A: The world has changed since 1926. Access to African-American history now is available year round, but to have one month when this is a particular priority is a good thing. The aspect of black history that is most immediately relevant is the civil rights movement. But you don't want African-American history to be only the history of victimhood and struggle. There is social and cultural history, music scenes and rich subcultures of creativity in post-civil rights and post-Jim Crow communities to be celebrated.

Q: Why is it still important in 2016 to celebrate Black History Month?

A: I would argue that if every vestige of racism ended as of 11 o'clock last night, we should still have Black History Month, because African-Americans are a distinct sub-national group in the same way the Scots or the Welsh are in Great Britain.

I think it's a positive thing, and I support other groups doing the same thing. March is Women's History Month, National Hispanic Heritage Month is in September, for instance.

More knowledge is good, and knowledge of history is good for everybody.

Bayo Holsey
Prof. Bayo Holsey.

Public Lecture: 'Charged Memories: Slave Pasts and Neoliberal Futures'

Join us for the Lorenzo Down Turner Lecture by Bayo Holsey, Rutgers University associate professor of history, titled "Charged Memories: Slave Pasts and Neoliberal Futures." The lecture will take place at 6 p.m., Feb. 23, in the Lilly Family Gallery, Chambers Building, and is free and open to all.

Holsey's research and writing address public culture and history in West Africa and the African diaspora. She is the author of Routes of Remembrance: Refashioning the Slave Trade in Ghana, which won the Amaury Talbot Prize and the Toyin Falola Africa Book Award. Currently, she is completing a second book entitled Tyrannies of Freedom: Race, Power, and the Fictions of Late Capitalism.