Black history links many histories

February 25, 2007|By Pearl Duncan

For the past few years, the motto of Black History Month has been, "African American History is American History." We don't hear that saying much anymore, which means it's understood. Now, we need a new narrative to address the myths and true stories of Black History Month.

Joseph Campbell, the religious and cultural anthropologist, said that in human history there's only one myth - the "monomyth" - and our histories weave their way through stories with high dramas and fierce conflicts as they circle back to self-discovery. We need to look at why Black History Month was needed in the first place. That means starting with the name.

The name for the people and their history has changed and evolved as the people and history have evolved. This year, in official White House proclamation and in various events, the month has been called "African American History Month, 2007" - a subtle change. As Joseph Campbell said: Pay attention to the name. He also said: Know the original motive.

The African-American historian Carter G. Woodson, born in 1875 to emancipated slave parents, created Negro History Week more than 70 years ago. The week evolved into Black History Month about 30 years ago as an outgrowth of the civil rights movement. What Woodson said about race also applies to individual men, women and children, as well as to a nation.

In 1926, to explain why a celebration was necessary, he wrote, "If a race has no history, if it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated."

He insisted that we must have a record of what our forebears accomplished if we are to reap the benefits of being inspired by their history. For Black History Month or African American History Month (whatever we choose to call it), that means telling history: myths and stories, facts and truths that speak of trials and triumphs, struggle and survival.

The stories we tell during the year and especially this month must embody all of these traits, and to do so we must research and discuss many interconnected histories: of our nation, our region, our groups and our individual families and ancestors. We must do so in a well-rounded narrative that inspires self-discovery.

I've been speaking to groups, students and businesspeople around the country and, at times, I've wondered why Woodson chose such a cold month to commemorate black history. He chose February because it incorporates the birthdays of an American president who affected the lives and destiny of black people, Abraham Lincoln, and a major black leader who spoke and acted on his beliefs, Maryland native Frederick Douglass.

U.S. history and African-American history intersect at their roots and have tangoed through the years together. It's not only the groups' histories that intersected, but individual families' histories too.

When I researched my ancestors (and searched who they were before they were slaves), I found individuals as diverse as we are today, and debates as personal and as conflicted as the debates we have today. My African ancestors - farmers, soldiers and village chiefs from the Akuapem Hills in Ghana - were captured as slaves. I found their specific families and villages from the 1600s. They fought wars, known as the Maroon rebellions, for their freedom in the colonies of the Americas. They had children with Europeans who were slave and plantation owners and who were nobles related to the royal families of Scotland and England. Some were their allies; some were their oppressors.

The proceeds of my Scottish ancestor's colonial businesses were used to buy and build a multinational oil company. One brother, in his will, left to his Scottish wife his own children, nieces and nephews as "slaves and other negroes"; another brother left the maximum cash the slavery laws allowed to his mixed children and their mother. He also left a house for them in secret, in anticipation of Emancipation.

Carter G. Woodson was right - our histories overlap, even with those of presidents. A New England plantation owner, Leonard Vassal, whose plantation housed several of my ancestors in Jamaica, built a mansion in Quincy, Mass., in 1734, which he sold to President John Adams in 1787.

We need to continue adding heroic narratives, whether the history in question is national, group or individual.

When I searched for ancestors, I learned much about looking at history and telling history in a new way. With greater understanding and knowledge, the new motto for Black History Month should be: "African American history is world history."

Pearl Duncan is author of the forthcoming book, "DNA, Courage & Ordinary Folks: 1,000 Years of History, Genealogy and My DNA." Her e-mail is

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