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Black History Month Is More American and Relevant than Ever

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Dash probably didn't know that Black History Month's creator, historian and educator Carter G. Woodson, explicitly linked Black history to American history when he founded Negro History Week in 1926.
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In the early days of the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, former teen-actress-turned-Fox-News-pundit Stacey Dash made headlines with a surprise counter-argument that was classic Fox.

According to Dash, it is African-American entertainers and audiences who have been guilty of promoting segregation and discrimination. Dash focused her remarks on the Black Entertainment Television (BET) network and the NAACP's annual Image Awards, but also, in a more striking addition to the argument, she criticized Black History Month.

On Fox, Dash was clear. "We're Americans. Period. That's it," she argued in defense of eliminating the February commemoration of African American figures and histories.

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Dash probably didn't know that Black History Month's creator, historian and educator Carter G. Woodson, explicitly linked Black history to American history when he founded Negro History Week in 1926 (the week later expanded to a month in the late 1960s and the commemoration was formally recognized at the federal level in 1976).

"We should emphasize not Negro history, but the Negro in history," Woodson argued. A central goal was to remember African American figures and stories as part of the larger narrative of our nation. Ever since, Black history commemorations have always been intended not as separate or segregated but as additions to our communal identities.

Just as Black history isn't in any way separate from American history, neither is the African American past disconnected from the 21st century present.

#OscarsSoWhite offers a perfect case in point. One of the first big fights undertaken by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) after its 1909 founding was to protest against D.W. Griffith's film The Birth of a Nation (1915). The NAACP's Los Angeles branch was the first to call for the film's strikingly racist, incendiary portrayals of African Americans to be censored or (barring that) for the film to be banned from showings in the city. The film's producers responded by upping the level of their racist propaganda, utilizing both billboards of Ku Klux Klan nightriders and costumed KKK horseman to advertise the New York City premiere.

The fact that Birth of a Nation was the first blockbuster film ever is a little known fact about the history of film, Hollywood, and race -- but more of us should know it. Birth was far and away the period's most financially successful film, but also its most controversial and divisive. It also sparked impressive responses from the African American artistic community, such as the Booker T. Washington-inspired The Birth of a Race (1918) and Oscar Micheaux's Within Our Gates (1920). Both films film sought to tell stories of multi-layered African American communities and their contributions to American history.

Is it any surprise that a film industry that to some extent was born with Birth of A Nation now suffers from a lack of powerful and important roles for actors of color?

Indeed, progress has been halting. Consider Gone With the Wind (1939). The Force Awakens and Titanic non-withstanding, by several measure Gone remains the most successful film in the history of American cinema. For her work in Gone, Hattie McDaniel became the first African American to win an Academy Award for her portrayal of the profoundly stereotypical slave Mammy.

The work of other NAACP activists and Black History pioneers can similarly be connected to contemporary American issues and voices. One of W.E.B. Du Bois' first published works was The Philadelphia Negro: A Sociological Study (1899), a pioneering examination of an African American community and the factors and forces that had contributed to its existence and experiences, its threats and possibilities. As current writers such as Ta-Nehisi Coates have long argued, no understanding of 21st century African American communities and the threats facing them--such as the horrific water crisis unfolding in Flint, Michigan--is possible without precisely such sociological and historical analyses.

At the same time that Du Bois was producing his first scholarly works, his future NAACP co-founder Ida B. Wells was waging a journalistic and activist campaign against an epidemic of lynching. In books such as Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases (1892) and The Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynching in the United States (1895), Wells did more than examine the stories, narratives, and realities of lynching; she consistently linked them to the historical and societal forces that had produced this epidemic of violence and vigilantism. There's a direct, vital through-line from Wells powerful attack on lynching to current author Michelle Alexander's attack on the system of mass incarceration, in her landmark book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2010).

Each of these contemporary issues is complex, requiring conversations and analyses far beyond the sound bites of a Stacey Dash. And it is precisely such nuanced discussions that Black History Month can provide. It's certainly true that we can't limit those conversations to one month a year -- but it's a great place to start them.