The Witness of Black History Month
Rev. DeWayne L. Davis,
Senior Pastor, All God's Children MCC, Minneapolis
Let truth destroy the dividing prejudices of nationality and teach universal love without distinction of race, merit or rank”
—Carter G. Woodson
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,”
—“Life Every Voice and Sing”
When historian Carter G. Woodson founded Negro History Week in 1926, his vision for the observance was greeted with some skepticism and has been contested ever since. Yet, despite the concern among African Americans that a week would never be sufficient to memorialize the black past and the disinterest and indifference of the white majority about the experience of black people, Woodson’s instinct and optimism have been vindicated. While the extended Black History Month remains insufficient to capture the fullness of the contributions of black Americans to the nation, the tradition and celebration continue to bear witness to the resilience and persistence of black Americans, thriving despite their experience of enslavement, segregation, and disfranchisement.
The theologian James Cone understood what was at stake in the project to explore black history when he described it as “recovering a past deliberately destroyed by slave masters, an attempt to revive old survival symbols and create new ones.” The effort to reclaim a black past and share the full truth of the black experience in the United States has always been undertaken in an environment of U.S. amnesia, American exceptionalism, and the veneration of whiteness. History, like theology, with its biases, omissions, and triumphalism, is presented as neutral and universal, even as black history is intentionally ignored and denied. Woodson’s stubborn insistence on revealing, recording, and sharing the truth of black existence and contributions is a powerful counter to national denial, and we all now can join in remembering and bearing witness.
Nearly two years ago, our family went to Washington, DC to visit the National Museum of African American History and Culture. We did not have tickets and weren’t sure that we would gain admission, but we had this one day to visit the museum and decided to take our chances. As we gathered on the plaza in front of the museum, strategizing how the six of us could convince museum staff to let us in, an African American guard and a museum employee approached us with an invitation, “Don’t worry about tickets. You all can come in.” I believe that is an invitation to all people at this moment—come in and take the opportunity of Black History Month to center, reveal, and reclaim the voices and contributions of African Americans. Be a part of revealing and celebrating a fuller picture of history. Do not forget. Tell the truth.