Category Archives: 400 Years of African American History

Black History Month 2019

In February 1926, Carter G. Woodson, founder of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, launched “Negro History Week.” Lonnie Bunch, founding director of the National Museum of African American History & Culture, wrote:

No one has played a greater role in helping all Americans know the black past than Carter G. Woodson, the individual who created Negro History Week in Washington, D.C., in February 1926. Woodson was the second black American to receive a PhD in history from Harvard—following W.E.B. Du Bois by a few years. To Woodson, the black experience was too important simply to be left to a small group of academics. Woodson believed that his role was to use black history and culture as a weapon in the struggle for racial uplift. By 1916, Woodson had moved to DC and established the “Association for the Study of Negro Life and Culture,” an organization whose goal was to make black history accessible to a wider audience. Woodson was a strange and driven man whose only passion was history, and he expected everyone to share his passion.

This impatience led Woodson to create Negro History Week in 1926, to ensure that school children be exposed to black history. Woodson chose the second week of February in order to celebrate the birthday of Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. It is important to realize that Negro History Week was not born in a vacuum. The 1920s saw the rise in interest in African American culture that was represented by the Harlem Renaissance where writers like Langston Hughes, Georgia Douglass Johnson, Claude McKay—wrote about the joys and sorrows of blackness, and musicians like Louie Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Jimmy Lunceford captured the new rhythms of the cities created in part by the thousands of southern blacks who migrated to urban centers like Chicago. And artists like Aaron Douglass, Richard Barthe, and Lois Jones created images that celebrated blackness and provided more positive images of the African American experience.

Woodson hoped to build upon this creativity and further stimulate interest through Negro History Week. Woodson had two goals. One was to use history to prove to white America that blacks had played important roles in the creation of America and thereby deserve to be treated equally as citizens. In essence, Woodson—by celebrating heroic black figures—be they inventors, entertainers, or soldiers—hoped to prove our worth, and by proving our worth—he believed that equality would soon follow. His other goal was to increase the visibility of black life and history, at a time when few newspapers, books, and universities took notice of the black community, except to dwell upon the negative. Ultimately Woodson believed Negro History Week—which became Black History Month in 1976—would be a vehicle for racial transformation forever.

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Remembering Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr. was born on January 15, 1929 in Atlanta. An HBO documentary includes scenes from his last birthday celebration in 1968.

dr. king - xernona clayton

dr. king - xernona clayton2

Xernona Clayton said she organized the office party to “cheer up” the civil rights leader. For information about King in the Wilderness, go here.

Happy birthday, Dr. King. We miss you but your legacy lives on in our determination to “keep moving.”

Jazz Is Black Music

Jazz Congress 2019, organized by Jazz at Lincoln Center and JazzTimes, was held last week. I was not able to attend in person so I watched the webcast of the panel discussion “Jazz, Swing, Race and Culture” with Myra Melford, Christian McBride, Wynton Marsalis, Terri Lyne Carrington and Nicholas Payton. Andre Guess was the moderator.

#jazzcongress

I listened with disbelief as Wynton Marsalis challenged Nicholas Payton’s comment about the racial origins of jazz:

The music doesn’t have a racial identity because race is a fake construct that was used in our country to enforce a class consciousness and to make people accept an inferiority.

The panel discussion was not the first time the racial roots of jazz were questioned. A 1959 documentary, The Cry of Jazz, sparked controversy when one of the characters asserted that “jazz is merely the Negro’s cry of joy and suffering.” The character, Alex, explained that “the Negro was the only one with the necessary musical and human history to create jazz.”

In 2010, the documentary was added to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress. The films selected are considered “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant, to be preserved for all time. These films are not selected as the ‘best’ American films of all time, but rather as works of enduring significance to American culture.”

It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words. Well, jazz pianist, arranger and composer Mary Lou Williams’ “History of Jazz” says it all.

mary lou williams - tree of jazz

Jazz is black music, point, blank, period.