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Black History Month: Past, Present and Future

Q&A with Associate Professor of Women's Studies Janell Hobson

Anna Julia Cooper, first African American woman to earn a Ph.D. at the Sorbonne in Paris

Anna Julia Cooper, a former slave, became the first African American woman to earn a Ph.D. at the Sorbonne in Paris and helped advance educational opportunities for African Americans in the U.S.

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ALBANY, N.Y. (February 07, 2011) --

From the legacy of the slave trade to the landmark achievements of scientists, civil rights activists, and Nobel laureates, February offers an opportunity to reflect on African American history in the United States.

UAlbany Associate Professor of Women's Studies Janell Hobson explains the history behind the month, and details the important contributions of lesser known individuals who helped shape the nation.

Q. What is the origin of Black History Month?

A: Black History Month was first started by Dr. Carter G. Woodson in 1926. An African American scholar who received his Ph.D. from Harvard, Dr. Woodson knew the importance of documenting black people's history and contributions to this country because they were consistently written out of it.  He first championed a Negro History Week, which did not become Black History Month until the 1960s and 1970s with the establishment of African American Studies programs.  February commemorates both the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, two monumental figures tied to African American history.

To quote Bob Marley, "If you know your history, then you would know where you coming from," and too many of us make up our own reasons for why things happen without first gaining the knowledge.  Knowledge is power, and power is the surest path to equality.

UAlbany associate professor of women's studies Janell Hobson

UAlbany Associate Professor of Women's Studies Janell Hobson

There's a reason slaves were forbidden from learning to read and write (another Black History fact worth knowing). Our students will need to remember this whenever they encounter road blocks to their education.

Q. Which lesser-known, but equally worthy, figures should we reflect upon this February?

A: If we must relegate our commemoration to February, there are the more well-known figures like Dr. King, Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey, Toussaint L'Ouverture, and Harriet Tubman: People who significantly moved us in the pathway towards liberation throughout the Americas. 

Black History Month is also about remembering the lesser known figures, like David Walker, who wrote a radical appeal in 1829 for transatlantic black consciousness and emancipation from slavery, or Ida B. Wells-Barnett, who campaigned against lynchings in the late 19th century. Through her journalistic writings and travels throughout the country and in England, Wells-Barnett championed anti-lynching as an international human rights issue and helped stage an international boycott against Southern cotton.

Apart from amazing black female leaders like Wells and Harriet Tubman is Anna Julia Cooper, someone we should all know but most of us don't. Cooper, a former slave, became the first African American woman to earn a Ph.D. at the Sorbonne in Paris and became principal of the M Street School from 1901 to 1906.  This segregated black school in Washington, D.C., consistently outranked and outperformed every other school in the city because of her rigorous curriculum and rejection of the textbooks assigned by the school board.

 Q. What does the future hold for Black History Month?

A: As a specific time of commemoration, we can all do our part to pass on our history to the next generation.  We can teach the triumphs and the cautionary tales, organize reading groups and film series, press our cable channels to feature more TV programs relating to Black History. We can also consult our artists and entertainers to tell our stories and treat them with the respect they deserve. We can encourage scholars and students that the work we do in Black History is a legitimate and relevant endeavor in the academy.

We should also remember to view Black History Month from a global perspective, as the stories throughout the Diaspora - in Africa, the Caribbean, Latin America, and the rest of the world - are also worth hearing and worth repeating.

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