For 97 years, the Association for the Study for African American Life and History has been commemorating the accomplishments of African-Americans through Black History celebrations.
In 1915, Carter G. Woodson founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History and sought to expand the understanding of Black history beyond slavery. What began as a weeklong celebration that coincided with the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln has developed into a highly anticipated month of events, television programs, headlines, and lectures that connect the trials and triumphs of African Americans to the people of the community.
“From the beginning, Carter G. Woodson was of the opinion that a lot of Black people did not have a great enough appreciation of who they were because they didn’t know what they had accomplished,” said Daryl Scott, president of the association. “But today, Black people care more about history than any other people in America. The fact of the matter is Americans don’t care about history at all.”
Scott’s claim that Americans don’t know the basics of the nation’s history may be true. A 2009 national survey conducted by the American Revolution Center found that more Americans could identify Michael Jackson as the person who wrote and sang the song “Beat It” than could identify the Bill of Rights as a part of the U.S. Constitution.
The No Child Left Behind education law was adopted in 2001, ushering in what some believe has been a period of “teaching to the test”—if a fact didn’t appear on a standardized test, it didn’t get taught in many schools.
Consequently, some fear that students graduating from high school today may know how to pass a test, but lack the knowledge that makes them well-rounded citizens.
According to the 2010 Nation’s Report Card presented by the National Center for Education Statistics, only 20 percent of fourth graders, 17 percent of eighth graders and 12 percent of 12th graders perform at or above “proficient” levels, meaning they obtain more than basic knowledge of U.S. History.
In a land where history is not deemed important, how does an organization based on the idea that history, specifically Black history, is of the utmost importance stay relevant? Scott said it does because it must.
“[African Americans] are the only ones who really tell the story of American history on a consistent basis,” he said. “We promote American history in a serious way.”
“One of the downsides of the age in which we live is that new media favors the talking head, the person, the celebrity who can send out a tweet,” he added. “There’s a way in which, no matter how much tech we have, until people meet with people the problems we have will not be addressed. We’re not going to tweet our issues away, it’s only going to change with human-to-human contact.”
The mission of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History is to promote, research, preserve and disseminate information about Black culture to the world. The organization publishes three journals on African-American life and is housed at Howard University in Washington, D.C.
Scott, who is also a history professor at Howard, remains unapologetic about the work he does with the organization.
“You can’t celebrate Black History without American history and vice versa,” said Scott. “Unless you think that our freedom came out of a box than not through struggle, then you know that it was through an experience. You can’t understand the state of America without understanding the struggles between Blacks and Whites.”
Every year since 1926, the year of the first Black History celebration, the association has set the themes for the month. This year’s theme is “At the Crossroads of Freedom and Equality: The Emancipation Proclamation and the March on Washington.”
This year marks the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 50th anniversary of the historic 1963 March on Washington.
“These events are like parables because the lessons we learn from them are simple, but very potent and powerful,” said Scott. “Freedom did not come to us with the stroke of a pen, we had to strike out and search for our freedom.”
The lessons from these events and the act of “striking out and demanding freedom” have played a key role in events as recent as the re-election of Barack Obama.
“We’ve witnessed ourselves on the verge of disenfranchisement,” Scott said. “It stunk of the need of people of African descent to stand up for rights to make sure they always have those rights.”
As Black History Month begins, so does the “busy season” for the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. The group’s activities include countless events and culminate with a luncheon in Washington, D.C. However the goals of the organization will remain the same as they approach their centennial in 2015.
“My goal is to the lay foundation so the association is able to sustain itself for another 100 years,” said Scott. “That means engaging the community in a better way to make history increasingly relevant.”