Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

On brand and being black in America

Convening Black History Month with the commercialization and appropriation of the culture today

In the winter of 1926 a 51-year-old author, publisher and agitator named Carter G. Woodson set aside a week for the recognition of what was then called Negro history. He chose February since it was the month in which both Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln were born. Were he alive, Woodson would in equal likelihood be inspired by the dimensions to which his humble week of reflection has grown and demoralized by the fact that it is still so vitally necessary. At no other point in the history of the United States have black people been more visible or more empowered than the present. One of our number presides in the White House. Our images are ubiquitous on television, in sports and popular culture. Yet this ubiquity raises the question, To what end? The paradox of the present moment is that the success of black culture leads to commercialization and appropriation of it. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but in racial America it is also the most widely practiced form of theft. If there is such a thing as an American brand, that identity is disproportionately black. This is the intention of the slate of dialogues, stories and explorations that Al Jazeera will be conducting in the coming weeks.

Woodson’s public education campaign seems an innocuous undertaking from our vantage point, 89 years later. It was not. For wide swaths of the public, the words “Negro history” were thought to be a contradiction in terms. Though slavery had been abolished a half-century earlier, black people in the United States remained shackled to the bottom tier of American society. Excluded from labor unions in the cities, trapped in peonage throughout the rural South and threatened by mass white violence of lynching nearly everywhere, for black Americans the demise of slavery had birthed something not worthy of the name freedom.

We think of history as the grand sweep of the past but its truths are most often found in the mundane. A powder horn. A badge of iron. A copper likeness and a shard of glass. The powder horn, belonging to a man named Prince Simbo, was carried into battle and bore witness to the chaotic birth of this nation. It saw the curious contradiction of a man of color fighting for a democracy whose freedoms would not soon be extended to his own kind. Those descendants who remained, trapped in bondage, labored to build a fledgling United States, their skilled labor leased out to all who afford it. Their status as bondsman indicated by an iron badge to be worn at all times. Knowledge of the written word is forbidden, but one woman masters the language and crafts poems intended as elegant subversions of the idea of black inferiority. The brown face of Phyllis Wheatley appears on the front of her volume, "Poems on Various Subjects." The glass is a jagged piece of tragedy, dislodged from a church window on 16th Street in Birmingham, Alabama. A touchstone of the four little girls who died that morning in 1963, a reminder that glass shatters far more easily than ideals do.

These are the roots that Black History Month sprung from: a brief for the recognition of the humanity of a subject people, a recognition that in a democracy the past is always a vital part of the present. At the 50th anniversary of the Negro History week celebration, the scholarly organization Woodson founded expanded to the full month of February. This year marks the 39th time we’ve recognized Black History Month. Woodson cited February for Douglass and Lincoln. Now we add to that sum the anniversary of the Greensboro sit-in movements (Feb. 1) the birth of W.E.B. Du Bois (Feb. 23) and the sad circumstances of Malcolm X’s death (Feb. 21). A geriatric film academy habitually overlooks black cinema but American music is literally inconceivable without the presence of black people. Black History Month is routinely recognized by presidential proclamation.

The very ubiquity of the celebration has engendered a backlash of sorts. It’s become common in recent years to hear grumbles of discontent about time being set apart specifically to recognize black history, as if the month were part of a complex of set-asides, yet another giveaway offered to undeserving minorities. On the other side of it is a small but notable set of dissenters who question the need to focus our efforts on February. Black history is American history, they say. There is no need to Jim Crow it all into the shortest month of the year.

Last year this country recognized the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, the 60th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision and riots in Ferguson, Missouri that echoed like a terrible half-century reenactment of the riots that erupted in Harlem in 1964. The staggering economic fallout of the recent housing crisis and recession has compounded inequalities that animated the antipoverty marches Martin Luther King work on near the end of his life. Black unemployment reliably hovers at or near double the rate of unemployment for whites, even for the college educated. History is widely rumored to repeat itself, but here it has scarcely had the chance; the original problem of race remains ongoing.

For this reason and many others like it our Februaries should be different. A recognition that Black History Month is not simply a celebration but a mining of the past for the best practices in achieving democracy. Not simply a branding opportunity but a rededication. Woodson’s decision to inaugurate a weeklong celebration of the black past was an insurrection of sorts. He, more than nearly anyone else, was poised to understand the centrality of history in the efforts to deny black humanity. He was an alumnus of both Harvard University and a West Virginia coal mine where he labored until age 21, the age at which he began his high school education.

Born in 1875, both his parents had been slaves, and he lived through Reconstruction and the turbulent campaigns to reinscribe black subordination as well as the quiet, unyielding resolve of a formerly enslaved community to gain its full freedom. He was the second black person to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard University. Not coincidentally, he and the first recipient, W.E.B. Du Bois, earned their degrees in history. In short, Woodson understood that such a thing as Negro history existed because he had lived it.

The Branding Black campaign is an attempt to survey the span of this history and tie it directly to the demands of the present. The slate of dialogues, images and explorations that are part of this campaign will not shy away from the unsettling parts of our world. In 1926 some 11 million black people lived in the United States, the great many of them trapped in blight of Southern segregation, an increasing number of them trapped in the airless ghettoes of Northern cities. Nearly four times as many black people live in the United States in 2015, the stories far more varied, innumerable branches that have sprung from a common source. But beneath all this, the rationale for Woodson’s first Negro History Week remains with us. Because of Ferguson. Because of Eric Garner. Because the worst of our history is not yet consigned to the past. Because the world Carter Woodson lived in is long gone but not yet unfamiliar.

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