Pages

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Black History Month and African American Writers


February is Black History Month, a time to focus the limelight on Americans of African descent. It started out as Negro History Week in 1926 with the aim of educating Americans on African American history. It is also known as African-American History Month in the US. It is also celebrated in Canada in February. In the United Kingdom, Black History Month is observed in October.

In the US and Canada, different events and activities are staged throughout the whole month of February in observance of Black History Month. In schools, African American history is given much emphasis in all levels from elementary to university level. Media, print, radio, television and the Internet have their own programs centering on African American history and other related subjects. Focus is placed on black Americans who have made their mark in government, education, media, literature, medicine, business, sports, and other important fields. Their contributions serve as inspirations to fellow African Americans and non-African Americans.

African Americans seem to have come full  circle – from slavery to presidency. Hawaii-born Barack Hussein Obama, whose father hails from Kenya, is the United States' 44th president. But before President Obama's ascendancy to the White House, there were many other African Americans who broke the glass ceiling in different fields. And these pioneering men and women should be remembered for their contributions to black history.

From Week to Month

Carter G. Woodson was the Harvard-educated historian who founded the organization called Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH). One of Woodson's goals was to educate the people of America about the history of African Americans. In 1925, he announced an event that would help realize this goal: the Negro History Week. The very first celebration of the event happened sometime in February 1926, on a week that had both Abraham Lincoln's and Frederick Douglass' birthdays, which were on February 12 and February 14, respectively. Both men were stalwarts against slavery. An interesting trivia to mention is that since Douglass' actual date of birth was unknown to him; he chose his own birthdate.

Woodson's aim was to highlight not only the history and cultural background of African Americans, but also their great achievements in different fields. It was important for Woodson that African American history become part and parcel of the whole history of America. John Hope Franklin, another historian, said that Woodson's hope was for Negro History Week to eventually "outlive its usefulness." He hoped that one day, the celebration could be eliminated because black history would already be ensconced into American history.

The initial response to Woodson's event was overwhelming. A number of black history clubs were born; there was a clamor for teaching materials for use in educational institutions; and, endorsements came from progressive whites and not just from white philanthropists and scholars. Negro History Week continued to establish itself as an important celebration even after the death of Woodson. When the US celebrated its bicentennial in 1976, the celebration was extended to a month. The 1st African American History Month was celebrated 50 years after the 1st celebration of Negro History Week.

Criticisms against Black History Month

There has been an ongoing debate over the observance of Black History Month. Some feel that setting aside a whole month gives people an excuse not to think about black history for the rest of the year. It also makes it seem that African American history is separate from the whole history of the United States. Others question the selection of the month of February for Black History Month since it has the least number of days compared to other months.

There are critics who even argue that Black History Month actually promotes racism. In an interview with Mike Wallace for 60 Minutes back in 2005, legendary multi-awarded African American actor Morgan Freeman questioned why his history has been relegated to just a month. He finds the whole thing ridiculous because, as he said, "Black history is American history." There are other criticisms about the celebration. Yet, Black History Month continues to be celebrated each year.

Writing, a means of expression for the oppressed

Black History Month puts the spotlight on African American achievers in various fields. Prominent black politicians, celebrities, scientists, business leaders and journalists are hailed and honored together with African American writers who have made writing their means of expressing their culture, their thoughts, their feelings and their ideals. They use written language in order to connect with their fellow African Americans and with the world as a whole.

The works of notable African American writers range from poems to essays to novels to plays and other forms of literature. Black writers wrote about slavery, political and social oppression, poverty, the civil rights movement, injustice and racism. But these were not the only subjects of their works. African American writers also wrote about their hopes and dreams, about love, of freedom, their beliefs and values, and what was good in their lives.

The language they used ranged from Standard English to a mixture of Standard English and Ebonics (ebony/phonics). Ebonics, or African American Vernacular English (AVVE) as it is sometimes referred to, is often described as a dialect very similar to the Southern American English. Other African American writers wrote in creole and other dialects.

Here are some notable early African Americans writers:

·      Phillis Wheatley. A slave from Africa, Wheatley was bought by a Boston Merchant back in the late 1700s. She came to America not knowing how to speak English. Her owners took time to teach Wheatley her new adopted language and by 1773, Wheatley published "Poems on Various Subjects."

·      Frederick Douglass. He wrote the "Narrative of Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave," which came out in 1845. Ten years after, his next work, "My Bondage and My Freedom," was published. His "Life and Times of Frederick Douglass" was published in 1881. Douglass was not just a writer; he was an abolitionist and fought for the rights of African American men and women.

·      W.E.B. Du Bois. One of the founders of National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was the author of the 1903 collection of essays entitled "The Souls of Black Folk."

·      Booker T. Washington. An educator, he wrote the following works: his 1901 autobiography "Up From Slavery," "The Future of the American Negro," and "My Larger Education."

·      Jean Toomer, Countee Cullen, Zora Neale Hurston and Dorothy West. They were well-known writers in the 20s to the 30s.

·      Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin. They were well-known writers who published works during the 40s, 50s and 60s.

·      Lorraine Hansberry. A playwright and author, she wrote the notable play, "A Raisin in the Sun" for which she garnered a New York Drama Critics' Circle Award in 1959.

·      Alex Haley. He wrote the critically acclaimed novel "Roots: The Saga of an American Family." This was published in no less than 37 languages and became a much watched television series. The book claimed for Haley a Special Award from the Pulitzer Board in 1977.

·      Maya Angelou. A writer, playwright, director, producer, actress, dancer, professor, activist, public speaker and more, she has won countless awards for her many works and received more than 30 honorary degrees from various institutions and organizations. The first of her autobiographies, "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" published in 1969, was nominated for a National Book Award. While "Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water 'fore I Die" a collection of poetry, garnered a Pulitzer Prize nomination in 1971.

·      Alice Walker. In 1983 she was awarded a Pulitzer Prize as well as a National Book Award for her fictional work, "The Color Purple."  The novel later on became a film directed by Steven Spielberg and then a musical produced by no less than notable African Americans Quincy Jones and Oprah Winfrey (who starred in the film version opposite Whoopi Goldberg and Danny Glover).

·      Toni Morrison. She is recognized for her works such as "The Bluest Eyes," "Sula," "Song of Solomon," and "Beloved." She started receiving awards in the late 70s. In 1977, "Song of Solomon" gave her a National Book Critics Circle Award. Today, she continues to reap awards for her literary contributions not only in the U.S. but also in other parts of the globe. In fact, in 2011 the University of Geneva bestowed on Morrison an Honorary Doctorate of Letters.

Today, up and coming African American writers are continuing the tradition set by earlier generations of black Americans. These new crop of writers may not have the same set of experiences or lived in the same conditions as their predecessors but that does not mean they cannot achieve what the other African Americans have achieved in the past. Through their imagination, passion and expert use of language in writing a particular literary form, the new crop of African American writers can continue the legacy handed down to them.

Different public and private organizations continue to pay tribute to the different generations of black Americans who, even amidst the adversities and challenges in life achieved their own goals and are now viewed as positive role models for the new generation and for the generations to come. Black history or African American history is a big part of human history, not just the history of the United States of America.

2 comments:

susana said...

I would also include Langston Hughes' beautiful
poems, for example "I, Too", and the fact that Toni Morrison (an extraordinary writer) won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993. From her marvelous Nobel Lecture: "We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives."

Day Translations said...

@Susana.

Thanks a lot for your input. Your comments are most welcome and we always love to learn about new people who have contributed to our society in such a positive manner.