Black History Month

African-American History Month - Black women in American Culture and HistoryToday marks the start of African-American History Month. Quite appropriately, the majority of events and activities celebrate the many contributions of African-Americans to the history of our nation. But just as appropriately, it is also a time to reflect on the history of African-Americans in the story of our nation.

The new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), scheduled to break ground in Washington DC this year, leads off its education page with a telling quote:

“If you study to remember, you will forget, but if you study to understand, you will remember.”

Uncle Tom's CabinFew things are more central to understanding the history of African-Americans than understanding the history of slavery and emancipation. And for all of its admitted melodrama and mid-19th century cultural biases, one of the most valuable keys to unlocking that history remains Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In fact, if you go to the website of the National Endowment for the Humanities and look at their lesson on Slavery’s Opponents and Defenders, you will find that it begins:

“When Abraham Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), he was said to have remarked, “Is this the little woman who made this great war?” Such was the impact Stowe’s novel had in exposing the inhumanity of slavery. Selling 300,000 copies in its first year of publication, the book’s popularity in the North revealed the growing sentiment against forcing people to live as chattel—human property that could be worked and disposed of practically at will.”

Every year, African-American History Month has a theme and this year’s theme is Black women in American Culture and History. Great artists, such as Zora Neale Hurston and Ella Fitzgerald, and great champions of freedom, such as Rosa Parks and Harriet Tubman. But as President Obama said in his 2012 National African American History Month Proclamation:

“During National African American History Month, we pay tribute to the contributions of past generations and reaffirm our commitment to keeping the American dream alive for the next generation.  In honor of those women and men who paved the way for us, and with great expectations for those to follow, let us continue the righteous cause of making America what it should be — a Nation that is more just and more equal for all its people.”

Harriet Beecher StoweThough not African-American, one woman who helped pave the way is Harriet Beecher Stowe, with her novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Unquestionably controversial, and through the sad depredations of popular culture cruelly distorted, it has been both reviled, and subsequently redeemed, by many of the leading African-American intellectuals and leaders of the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries.

But President Obama is right to also acknowledge “those to follow” who will “continue the righteous cause of making … a Nation that is more just and more equal for all its people.” For the fact is that we are, still, an imperfect nation, struggling towards an ideal. And as long as we seek to “continue the righteous cause” we must “study to understand,” understand and remember, how we got to where we stand today.