Sankofa is a word in the Twi language of Ghana that literally translates “fetch it,” “go back and get it” or “it is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten.”

The Sankofa principle informs the movement to explore, examine, and educate Blacks (and, to a lesser extent, whites) about the cultural and historical contributions of the Black diaspora. This drive led to the founding of a period devoted to the study of Black history.

The evolution of Black History Month coincided with and was informed by the Civil Rights and Black Consciousness Movements. As with those movements it would take decades of struggle to awaken the national consciousness and receive broad endorsement of commemoration–– particularly at the federal level. Today, Black History Month is widely observed not only in the United States but in several foreign countries throughout the diaspora. Despite wide acknowledgement, the observation fuels considerable controversy.

The need and political correctness of an isolated race-based historical focus is hotly debated. Some contend that the celebration has devolved into hero worship devoid of historical context; some that in a post-racial society continued celebration is racist and divisive; a few characterize it as a failure, and others, like Danielle Fuentes Morgan, argue that “in an ideal world, Black History Month wouldn’t be necessary. But we don’t live in an ideal world.” Despite the controversy. the celebration of Black history continues; it has a long history.

Black History Month had its genesis in 1926. The idea emerged from the collaborative efforts of historian Carter G. Woodson, Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH) and Omega Psi Phi fraternity. While Woodson was earning his Master’s degree from the University of Chicago and a Ph.D. from Harvard in history, he witnessed how Black people were underrepresented in the books and conversations that shaped the study of U.S. history. After attending a national celebration of the 50th anniversary of emancipation in 1915, Woodson founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH). The association was formed to study the history and cultural contributions of Blacks. In 1924 Woodson prompted the Omega fraternity to introduce a Negro History and literature week. Two years later, determined to bring greater attention to African American history, Woodson and the ASNLH launched Negro History Week. Originally the week was observed in April; it was subsequently moved to the second week in February. The date was chosen to honor the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln on the 12th and Frederick Douglas on 14th and to recognize the passage of the 15th Amendment which gave Black males voting rights on Feb. 2, 1870.

Woodson and the ASNLH promoted the teaching of Black history in public schools. He thought that learning Black history was vital to the intellectual and physical survival of the race.

If a race has no history, it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated. The American Indian left no continuous record. He did not appreciate the value of tradition, and where is he today? The Hebrew keenly appreciated the value of tradition, as is attested by the Bible itself. In spite of worldwide persecution, therefore, he is a great factor in our civilization.

At the outset Negro History Week received little support. The school districts in only three states and two cities participated: North Carolina, Delaware, West Virginia and cities of Washington D.C. and Baltimore.

However, by 1929, the idea of Negro History Week had received wide support among the departments of education in the majority of states with a sizeable Negro population. Churches and the Black press also played a significant role by distributing literature. In the ensuing decades the response and enthusiasm increased particularly amongst the middle class. During the early days of the Civil Rights Movement, Freedom Schools in the South embraced the week and its curriculum message. Interest in teaching Black history was not lacking but materials were scarce and not always accessible. To remedy the scarcity, the ASNLH created a Negro History Kit, which included a 32-page pamphlet replete with poems, orations, plays and a 5-day teaching program. Notwithstanding these efforts and some progress by the mid 1960s the most popular text book for eight grade U. S. History classes only mentioned two Black people in the entire century after the Civil War. The textbooks did not comment on, among other things, the slave uprisings, the Ku Klux Klan, lynching, separate but equal, or white privilege.

The turbulent advent of the Black Consciousness Movement of the ’60s and ’70s would drastically alter the status quo. The spirit of the times was aptly crystalized by the James Brown recording “Say It Loud, I am Black and I’m Proud.” Brown’s call was heeded on several fronts. For one, identifying as Black replaced the negro label––and Black pride exploited. It also energized university students and faculty activism. They demanded Black studies programs and the inclusion of Black history courses in the curriculum. Students at San Francisco State University staged a strike demanding the establishment of a Black studies program. The administration finally yielded after the strike went on for five months. The university hired noted sociologist Nathan Hare to coordinate and write a proposal for a Black studies program. The first Black studies program was adopted at San Francisco State University in September of 1968.

The activism also addressed the Black History Week. Influenced by the Black Consciousness Movement of the 1960s the Black United Student Organization at Kent State University in 1969 advocated for a month long celebration. The first celebration of Black History Month took place from January 2, 1970––February 28, 1970. Shortly thereafter, the federal government would begin to recognize the Black history.

In 1975 President Gerald Ford issued a “Message on the Observance of Black History Week” urging all Americans to “recognize the important contribution made to our nation’s life and culture by Black citizens.” Later in 1976 President Ford issued the first “Message on the Observance of Black History Month.” Presidents Carter and Regan continued the tradition.

In 1986 Congress passed Public Law 99-244 which designated February 1986 as National Black (Afro-American) History Month. This law noted that February 1, 1986 would “mark the beginning of the sixth annual public and private salute to Black History.” The law further directed the president to issue a proclamation calling on the people of the United States to observe February 1986 as Black History Month with appropriate ceremonies and activities.

President Reagan issued Presidential Proclamation 5443 which proclaimed the foremost purpose of Black History Month is to make all Americans aware of the struggle for freedom and equal opportunity. The proclamation stated further that this month was a time “to celebrate the many achievements of African Americans in every field from science and the arts to politics and religion.”

In 1986, President Clinton issued Presidential Proclamation 8863 for “National African American History Month.” The proclamation emphasized the theme for that year, the achievements of Black women from Sojourner Truth to Mary McLeod Bethune and Toni Morrison.

In February 1996, the Senate passed Senate Resolution 229 commemorating Black History Month and the contributions of African American U. S. Senators. Since passage of the resolution every president has issued annual proclamations.

Each year, ASNLH selects a theme for Black History Month. Often the theme relates to the anniversary of a significant event in Black history. The theme for 2020 is––“Black Americans and the Vote” in recognition of sesquicentennial of the passage of the 15th amendment which gave Black males the right to vote (women, regardless of color, had no voting rights until the passage of the 19th amendment).

On Feb. 1, 2011 President Barack Obama issued a proclamation reflecting on that year’s theme African Americans and the Civil War “which commemorated the sesquicentennial of the beginning of the Civil War.’

The celebration of Black history as envisioned by Woodson was not limited to Black contributions in the United States but encompassed the entire diaspora. Throughout, the diaspora, the contributions of those of African descent was left out of the mainstream history and the national narrative. Accordingly, albeit only in the past 35 or so years, a few foreign countries have attempted to rectify the “whitewash” by recognizing the contributions of Blacks within their respective countries. The efforts of a Ghanaian analyst who served as special projects coordinator for the Greeter London Council led to the United Kingdom observing, Black History Month in 1987; it does so in October. At least four countries hold commemorations during the month of February: Germany, The Netherlands, Canada, and Ireland. William R. William, a historian at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut notes” Black History Month in Ireland was initiated in Cork in 2010. This location seems appropriate as in the 19th century, the city was a leading center of abolition, and the male and female anti-slavery societies welcomed a number of Black abolitionist to lecture there, including Charles Lenox Remond and Frederick Douglas.”

The celebration and commemoration of African American’s cultural and historical contributions remains necessary and important––and arguably no less needed than it was in 1926. In some respects, the need might be even more critical as some prematurely believe that as a result of Obama being elected president we live in a post-racial America. One commentator responded to the elimination of Black history by noting that “the suggestion that Black history should be removed in favor of broad American history becomes synonymous with “ all lives matter” …. and in practice erases Black people from the narrative of U.S. history. Another commentator says, “that mainstream treatment is a token gesture everywhere except for inside elementary school classrooms where, at least during February, Black children receive the same simplified treatment of historical figures as children of other races.”

The emphasis however must move beyond dates, events, and individuals. To be sure, this information has value but it must be juxtaposed, and integrated into the broader context to become meaningful. The failure to do so results in, at best, a superficial understanding of history. For example, a study released in January 2018 by the Southern Poverty Law Center revealed that only 8% of high school students knew that slavery was the main cause of the Civil War. Even more alarming: two thirds did not know that it took a constitutional amendment to end slavery. Such deficiencies lend credence to critics claims that Black history celebration has devolved to mere “hero worship.” Lastly, the commemoration in the United States could better serve the goals of Woodson by embracing and examining the contributions of Afro–Latinos and Blacks throughout the Caribbean.

W. Ray Kwame Williams, is an assistant professor, Rutgers Business School-Newark & New Brunswick.