Black History Month: From Slavery to Obama and Beyond

President-elect Barack Obama waves as he takes the stage at his election night party in Chicago's Grant Park, Tuesday, Nov. 4
President-elect Barack Obama waves as he takes the stage at his election night party in Chicago's Grant Park, Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2008. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

Why do we as a nation celebrate Black History Month? Why are there no French, Dutch, German, Spanish, Jewish, Scandinavian, Irish, Scottish, Greek, etc., history months?

We do so because none of the ancestors of those ethnic groups were brought here from their respective country of origin and enslaved in the United States for centuries with de jure sanction, enforcement, and approval of their enslavement by successor governments of the United States from 1619 to the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, and thereafter enduring de facto racial segregation and oppression approved by successor national governments until the 20th century.

A close white family friend humorously and sarcastically likes to remind me each year that even in the celebration of Black History Month, our nation chose February, the month with the fewest days.

The principal cultural consequence of the institution of slavery was the systemic exclusion or distortion of the achievements and contributions of African Americans in the history books and media of our country. Consider the history of black people in the United States depicted in movies like Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind, in theatrical stage productions of blackface minstrel shows, and the long-running radio series Amos & Andy.

The historical impact of years of exclusion and distortion of positive images and knowledge about the achievements of African Americans in our national literature, books and magazines was poignantly reflected in the results the "Dolls Test," designed and administered by a husband-and-wife team of psychologists, Drs. Mamie and Kenneth Clark, in connection with the 1954 Supreme Court decision outlawing racial segregation in public education.

The dolls used in the test were identical in all respects except that one was white, the other brown. Similar age groups of white and black children, with equal numbers of boys and girls, were asked the same questions about the dolls:

  • Which doll is the "ugly" doll?

  • Which doll is the "pretty" doll?
  • Which doll is "good" doll?
  • Which doll is the "bad" doll?
  • Which doll "would you like to be when you grow up?"
  • All the white students and an overwhelming majority of the black students gave the same answers: the brown doll was "ugly" and "bad." The white doll was "pretty" and the one they would most like to be when they grow up.

    The Supreme Court unanimously ruled that racial segregation claiming to be "equal" was inherently unequal because it conferred a "badge of inferiority" in the minds of white and black schoolchildren.

    Our nation owes a debt of gratitude to the African-American historian Dr. Carter G. Woodson. In 1926 he initiated Negro History Week for the second week of February. It was scheduled to occur between the birthdays of the Negro abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass and President Abraham Lincoln. In 1976 this became Black History Month.

    The founding of Ebony Magazine by John Johnson was a milestone effort to present pictures and stories about the African-American experience to blacks and whites who had never had the opportunity to see black life in our country.

    The reality of race in America and the consequential impact of the legacy of slavery and its ideological rationale of white supremacy has been the core of our national hypocrisy about the relationships between white and black people in America.

    The election of Barack Obama in 2008 as the first African American to become president of the United States has been interpreted by a significant number of white people as the advent of a new "post-racial America."

    I created and teach a course in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of San Francisco called "From Slavery to Obama." I am grateful for the support we receive from the administration and faculty at USF. Over a period of 15 weeks, I seek to provide our students with a historical framework for the impact that the institution of slavery has had upon the mindsets and lives of subsequent generations of the children of slaves and slave owners.

    Commencing this September, USF plans, for the first time, to offer this course in the form of online videos to its enrolled students, and subsequently to students at other colleges and universities.

    For those who genuinely believed the election of Barack Obama was the arrival of a post-racial America, I hope their examination of the significant opposition to the legitimacy of his first term as president and the continued intransigent opposition to him by a Republican-controlled Congress might provide some degree of a reality check on their belief.