Recently, the inimitable Carrie Sheffield asked me if I’d write a short op-ed for Black History Month. Specifically, she asked if I would identify a figure from the past that people may not know about.
I can! And I’ll reveal that person in a lower paragraph. But first, I thought I’d take a minute to offer a different line of thinking about how to approach African American History Month and how we may all collectively celebrate it.
Journalists and media professionals are trained to identify a good story: something people did not expect, do not know, or a person who is extraordinary in some way. Those hooks make for compelling journalism and tend to comprise the bulk of mainstream African American History month coverage.
That is not necessarily how the discipline of History operates, however. Historians study people, for sure, and do, indeed, look for stories that may be undiscovered or not yet fully explored. But History (capital ‘H’) is also about understanding social movements, power dynamics, the biases and prejudices in human actions, how things shift, why they shift and answering questions about the past that better illuminate the present.
So, for African American History Month, it’s a good time to not only seek out individuals whose stories are not well-known (of which there are many). It is also a good time to think about what questions about the African-American past we may want to ask, and what evidence we may use to piece together an answer—be it through the use of archives, newspapers, photographs, oral histories or other sources.
One proposal is that we could use each February to pose a national question about African American History, which we would then collectively seek to answer throughout the month in our schools, libraries, book clubs and in the media. For example, as this is the 50th anniversary of 1968, we could make this month’s question focused on African American experiences during that pivotal year. How did the events of that year affect the progress of the Civil Rights movement? How did the electoral politics of that year affect Black political participation? How did the Black Power protest at the 1968 Olympics resonate with audiences in America and around the world?
Historians grapple with these types of questions all the time—making African American History Month an ideal time to engage with the books, articles, podcasts, blog posts and secondary sources created by historians. This would help get people outside the ivory tower engaged in historical thinking. It would also make February a month wherein we celebrate African American historians, as well as history. There are thousands of African American historians doing important work. Lonnie Bunch, Annette Gordon Reed, Henry Louis Gates and Ibram X. Kendi are names you may be familiar with. There are thousands more. There are publications such as The Root, organizations such as the African American Intellectual History Society, African American documentary filmmakers, museum professionals, archivists and amazing young African American scholars emerging. A simple Google Scholar search will yield many starting points for exploration.
Finally, getting back to Carrie’s question: who is the figure I’d identify, if I had to? That would probably be John Hope Franklin, a person who was instrumental in the legitimization of the field of African American history itself. Franklin led an extraordinary life. Born into poverty in Tulsa in 1915, he eventually would be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In between he would author and edit numerous books, including the 1947 landmark book, From Slavery to Freedom, a book that has sold more than 3 million copies. He was the first African American to be the head of numerous history organizations. He helped to argue Brown v. Board of Education and marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He not only helped formulate the discipline of African American studies, he helped to integrate it into the larger American story. You can find much information about Franklin on the Web and in your local library (among the things named after him are a school at Duke and a species of orchid!)
So, happy African American History Month to you and yours! May it be a month filled with questions — and exploration of the answers to those questions.
Jason Steinhauer is the inaugural director of the Lepage Center for History in the Public Interest at Villanova University and the creator of the field of history communication. On Twitter: @JasonSteinhauer.