The month of February is officially called Black History Month, and this is its 91st year, although not always with that title, and originally designated as a week rather than a month.
Some have questioned whether Black History Month has outlived its usefulness. Others such as actor Morgan Freeman have said "I don’t want a black history month. Black history is American history." Freeman has argued that there was no White History Month, because white people did not want their history relegated to just one month.
Designating a month for special recognition shouldn’t be taken as some sort of admission that only that the cause in question is important for that month. Next month is officially recognized as Women’s History Month. There’s no implication that women get one month and men get either the other eleven or all twelve.
Causes and persons are recognized on a national basis by naming them for a month through Presidential proclamation, executive order or legislation passed by Congress. They tend to be causes that warrant special recognition by focusing on them for a month precisely because they are associated with one kind of minority or another. In other words, there’s no basis for declaring a national right-handed persons month, but there might be a basis for declaring a national left-handed persons month.
But I would argue that the larger question in Black History Month is just what kind of history ought to be the focus of our special attention. A very provocative distinction was made by Carter Woodson, the man behind the original designation of Negro History Week back in 1926. Although the language sounds a bit archaic, his main point was both clear when he wrote, " We should emphasize not Negro History, but the Negro in history. What we need is not a history of selected races or nations, but the history of the world void of national bias, race hate, and religious prejudice." The same point was reiterated earlier this month by the Boyd Rutherford, the Lieutenant Governor of Maryland and an African-American himself when he held a reception in the Maryland Governor’s mansion that I was privileged to attend. Black History month should be about recognizing the contributions of Black Americans in our national history, not about the history of one group of Americans as if they were different from or less than the nation.
Why February? The most often cited reasons are three: It is the birth month of Abraham Lincoln, the birth month of Frederick Douglass and the month in which the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution was submitted to the states for ratification. The Thirteenth Amendment is the one that abolished slavery, and it was supported by President Lincoln and every Republican in the House, and opposed by all but 16 Democrats.
As the annual recognition rolled around this year, President Trump made a remark that was subject to considerable derision when he said, at a breakfast with African-American leaders marking the start of African-American History Month, described famed 19th century abolitionist Frederick Douglass as "an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more." Unquote. Some jumped on the President’s clumsy wording to imply that he must not know that Frederick Douglass died in 1895. Whether that’s valid or not is immaterial, in that the President is quite correct in observing that Douglass is being recognized more and more. I am pleased to say that Let Freedom Ring is part of that increased recognition, because we are the midst of producing a major movie on the life of Frederick Douglass. The title of the movie is Frederick Douglass’ Majestic Wrath.
Douglass was in fact the leading public speaker promoting abolition in the nineteenth century and the single individual most responsible for leading President Lincoln to go beyond merely supporting an end to slavery and embracing the concept of full equality of all persons.
We plan to release the film next year, which will be the bicentennial of Frederick Douglass’ birth in 1818. Whether intentional or not, President Trump’s awkward wording has once again thrust this nineteenth century abolitionist and promoter of racial equality and reconciliation onto the main stage of our national awareness in the twenty-first century. Thank you, President Trump. We appreciate your promotional efforts on behalf of our film.
(Colin Hanna is President of Let Freedom Ring, USA.)