United States Department of Defense United States Department of Defense

DoD News

Bookmark and Share

 News Article

Is It Black History Month or African-American History Month?

By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Feb. 21, 2003 – Some people call February Black History Month. Others call it African-American History Month.

That's not a problem, because the names are interchangeable, according to Barbara Dunn of the Association for the Study of African-American Life and History in Silver Spring, Md.

"We don't have a problem with either," said Dunn, executive assistant to association Director Irena L. Webster. "We call it Black History Month, and we have a committee that decides on the theme every year. This year, we selected 'The Souls of Black Folks: Centennial Reflections.'"

The theme ties with the 100th anniversary of the 1903 book, "The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches," by William Edward Burghardt Du Bois (Feb. 23, 1868 - Aug. 27, 1963). More widely known as W.E.B. Du Bois, he was an African-American educator, sociologist, author and a founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People -- NAACP -- in 1910.

The association theme committee studied his book and formed seven focus "chapters" for a learning research package this year, Dunn noted. They are "The Souls of Black Folks Revisited," "Black History and Historians," "The Tuskegee Machine and the Politics of Accommodation," "The Talented Tenth," "Race Relations," "Pan- Africanism" and "The Sacred Arts."

"All of these are reflective of Dr. Du Bois' evolving scholarship that was expressed in 'The Souls of Black Folks,'" Dunn noted. "What is really powerful about the book is that he wrote about the African-American experience through songs. He talked about how powerful the Negro spirituals are -- the slave songs. They're the singular spiritual heritage of the nation. It's one of the greatest gifts Negro people ever gave to the world."

Many other things have evolved out of Negro spirituals, she noted. "When you look at those songs, the lines, the feeling, the crying from those songs had a human expression that has transcended everything we do in society," Dunn said. "So when Dr. Du Bois put The Souls of Black Folks together, he took a Negro spiritual and put it with a poem written by a white writer. This was the first time black and white were brought together in such a unique way.

"Music has always been something that can bring people together, and he did that in The Souls of Black Folks," she said.

Dunn said Du Bois often worked with Carter G. Woodson, the "Father of Black History," who started Black History Week in 1926. She noted that Woodson (1875-1950), an author, editor, publisher and historian, published works by people who couldn't otherwise get published.

Woodson chose the second week of February because two persons he felt had dramatically affected the lives of black Americans, Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, were born during the month. The observance became a month-long event in 1976.

"Initiating Negro History Week was probably the most powerful thing that has ever been done by one person to help people come together," Dunn said. "Dr. Woodson's whole idea was not just bringing attention to one race. He felt that bringing attention to Negro and American history would help people who had a problem with race relations see the significance of what we as a people have contributed to American history. Then it would help them to stop seeing us as unequal."

Each year, the Department of Defense uses the association's theme for its African-American History Month celebration. This year's DoD observance, an exposition and luncheon, is slated for Feb. 26 and 27 at Tougaloo College in Jackson, Miss. Tougaloo is one of the nation's 118 historically black colleges and universities.

Dunn said the Rev. Jesse Jackson in the 1980s introduced the term "African-American" because it connected blacks to the continent of Africa just as Chinese Americans are connected with China. Jackson, founder and president of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, is one of America's foremost civil rights, religious and political figures.

Dunn noted that the presidential proclamation reads "African- American History Month." Most federal agencies use the same term. On the other hand, she said, " some people don't know what to call us nowadays."

Dunn said when the term "African-American" is used, "sometimes some of our other 'colored' brothers and sisters, such as those in the Caribbean, feel like we're excluding them. When we use 'black,' we're talking about people of color inclusively. 'African-American' really doesn't exclude them, but sometimes people feel that way. So we use both names to show people that both of them are fine."

In 2001 the association renamed its publications to remove the word "Negro." "Not because it was anything derogatory; that's the history of the names we've been called," Dunn said. "It was done to bring our publications up to date with what we call ourselves today."

For example, the Journal of Negro History was changed to the Journal of African-American History and the Negro History Bulletin was changed to Black History Bulletin.

Woodson, who founded the Association for the Study of African- American Life and History on Sept. 9, 1915, in Chicago, is also called "The Man Who Saved Black History." The son of former slaves believed that blacks should know their past in order to participate intelligently in the affairs of the nation. Woodson said black history, which others have tried to erase, is a firm foundation for young blacks to build on to become productive citizens of American society, according to Dunn.

"They both (Du Bois and Woodson) said something about participation of African-Americans in the armed forces," Dunn noted.

Consequently, she said, the association is trying to continue to express and celebrate a Du Bois concept. "He said there was a double consciousness or 'twoness' confronting African-Americans," she said. "It was two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings, two warring ideals in one dark body whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn apart."

Dunn said the concept includes the struggle African-Americans have had in the military. "We could fight the wars, but when we come home we really weren't celebrated," she said.

Dunn said Woodson's three-story Victorian row house in northwest Washington was designated a National Historic Landmark on May 11, 1976, for its significance in African-American cultural heritage.

"The association has a bill before Congress to declare it a historical site," she noted. "The National Park Service just completed a study that says it's worthy of being a historical site. Money is being raised to restore the home. When it's completed, the association will move into it and use it as its offices and a museum."

The Association for the Study of African-American Life and History Inc. Web site is at www.asalh.com/call.htm.

"The Souls of Black Folk" can be downloaded from the University of Virginia Library's Electronic Text Center at etext.lib.virginia.edu/toc/modeng/public/DubSoul.html.

Contact Author

Additional Links

Stay Connected