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'Trying To Reckon Honestly': Dartmouth Prof. On The Evolution Of Black History Month

People carrying a banner reading honor Black lives
Peter Hirschfeld
VPR File
A scene from an anti-racism protest in Montpelier in June. We talk with Dartmouth professor Matt Delmont about the evolution of Black History Month and how Black Lives Matter and other recent movements factor into that history.

What does Black History Month mean in the era of Black Lives Matter and a national reckoning with white supremacy? 

Black History Month is a time when the country reflects on — and celebrates — the role of Black Americans in the tapestry of the nation's history. But that history is still being written, and just last year, a terrible new chapter was recorded when yet another unarmed Black man was killed by a law enforcement official in a case that drew national outrage amid the pandemic. It's a pattern Black Americans have been familiar with since the nation’s inception.

VPR's Mitch Wertlieb spoke with with Matt Delmont, a history professor at Dartmouth College who specializes in African American history, the history of Civil Rights movement, and pop culture and media. He's also the author of the digital project and 2019 book Black Quotidian: Everyday History in African-American NewspapersTheir conversation has been edited for clarity.

Mitch Wertlieb: Let’s start with Black History Month itself. Where and when did the idea of Black History Month actually come from?

Matt Delmont: Black History Month is nearly 100-years-old. It started in 1926. At that point, it was called Negro History Week, and it was started by a historian named Carter G. Woodson, who did some really important work to institutionalize the study of African-American history. People have been studying African history. Black communities had for decades and decades. But it wasn't until the 1920s that this became kind of institutionalized as a study. And so 1926 was the first year he launched what he called, at the time, Negro History Week.

And what's important to remember at that time was that it was not just the work of singular academic historians, but it was really a communitywide effort all across the country. Negro History Week wouldn't have taken off without the work of teachers, librarians, parents, ministers, really kind of everyday people who took this material that was being sent out by whites and others and really made it kind of come to life in their own communities.

There were a handful of white scholars and white communities that understood the importance of Black history that early on. But it wasn't really until, I would say, the Civil Rights era of the 1950s and '60s, that mainstream white America really came to understand the importance of studying Black history.

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Prof. Delmont, if you were to categorize Black History Month as being successful or unsuccessful in the sense of helping Americans understand the role of African-Americans in the nation's history, what kind of a grade would you give it? Has it been a successful effort through the years?

I think I'd answer that in two ways. On one hand, it's been tremendously successful. It's one of the most successful educational programs we have in our nation's history. The evidence that I would point you to for that is, when you ask Americans who they consider to be a famous American and you exclude presidents, the two most popular answers are Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks. Now, that was almost inconceivable, if you go back to the 1960s and 1970s, that average Americans would cite two Black figures as some of the most important figures in our nation's history.

So from that perspective, we wouldn't have that kind of name recognition for those iconic figures without Black History Month and the fact that generations of schoolchildren now have been taught Black history, at least during February.

The part where I feel like it's been less successful is that it's sometimes too easy for white Americans to only focus on Black history during February and did not really understand the fact that you can't understand American history without understanding Black history. And so that's the part I think is still in front of us, that Black History Month is a great thing. We should always be celebrating in February. And if we only think about Black history as being a one time of year thing, we lose sight of the fact that it should be threaded throughout our study every day of the year.

"It's sometimes too easy for white Americans to only focus on Black history during February and did not really understand the fact that you can't understand American history without understanding Black history." - Matthew Delmont, professor at Dartmouth College

Can you tell us a little bit about this digital project you have, and a book of the same name called Black Quotidian? It looks at how Black newspapers and other media chronicle the experience of African-Americans. And I'm wondering if that differs from how more traditional mainstream media that is perhaps controlled more by by white people approach the matter, and what those major differences are.

What led me to the project is that I was getting frustrated, as a teacher trying to teach Afro-American history to predominantly white students. At the time I was at Arizona State University, but I've encountered similar things here at Dartmouth: that my students would come into the classroom and they would know these iconic figures. They knew about Martin Luther King, Jr., they knew about Rosa Parks, but they didn't really have a sense of the broader contours and sweep of Black history. And particularly in the era of Black Lives Matter, a lot of my white students only really encountered Blackness and Black people through through suffering and through the often tragic deaths of Black people at the hands of police.

And so that's what led me to create this website, which looked back at an example of an African-American newspaper article from each day throughout an entire year or so. There over 365 posts. And what's fascinating about these Afro-American newspapers is that they really captured the entire sweep of Black life in these communities, communities like Chicago, New York, Los Angeles.

It wasn't just Civil Rights and the kind of protest marches. Those are definitely there, but it was also sports and entertainment and weddings and birthdays, the kind of daily pulse of Black life, both the kind of joys and sorrows, and I worry sometimes that we lose sight of those, that kind of everyday minutia of Black life when we only focus on some of the most famous and iconic people and an event.

I'm glad that you specialize in pop culture and media as well as African-American history, because one of the things I think that's a problem in discussing African-American history is that so much of it is not taught in schools. The reason I bring up pop culture is because for a lot of people, and myself included, I did not know about the 1921 massacre of Black Americans in Tulsa, Oklahoma, until I was watching a science fiction program on HBO called Watchmen. And I'm sure that you're aware of this, but a lot of Americans didn't know what happened in Tulsa in 1921 until they saw that.

What does that say about what we're taught in school as opposed to what we learn from pop culture, from media in some ways? Are they teaching us more?

I'm the type of historian that thinks we can learn history from a variety of different sources. So it's not just the textbooks that we might use, and in traditional classrooms. I think it is movies; it's television shows. It's music; it's stories from our families. We can learn it from a number of different different directions.

But what I think is important about the study of history is that if we study history correctly, it can equip us to understand the past and to navigate our present and hopefully chart a better path for the future.

That's what professional historians are trying to do. We're trying to reckon honestly with our nation's history, and that means that you have to take both the good and the bad. And I think African-American history is a great example of this.

There are tremendous stories of resilience and achievement and progress that we can point to over the last 400 years. There's also stories of slavery and Jim Crow segregation, and we can't pull those two things apart. You can't take just a good story and leave out the bad stories. That kind of honest reckoning is what our country desperately needs if we're ever going to actually achieve real multiracial democracy here.

I think the thing that is frustrating is that when people don't have this historical knowledge, it's as though they're constantly rediscovering or consciously being surprised by what's transpired and in front of them.

"When people don't have this historical knowledge, it's as though they're constantly rediscovering or consciously being surprised by what's transpired and in front of them." - Matthew Delmont, professor at Dartmouth College

So if we look back at summer 2020, very little of what happened in the summer 2020 was surprising to Black Americans. These issues of police brutality have been going on for four centuries in the very same communities that we saw protests in this summer. 

And so if we don't deal honestly, reckon honestly with that, history will be left to be kind of constantly surprised as these issues continue to confront us. And I think my job as a historian is to try to get this information in front of as many people as possible, so they can hopefully be better positioned to navigate what's going on.

Do you see a problem, though, with folks learning about that 1921 massacre from a television show rather than learning it in an educational setting, like a school?

Actually, I don't see a problem at all. I think everyone has to learn something for the first time, somewhere. That might come in a classroom, it might come through through a movie or TV series. I think the question is: what do you do with that knowledge? Hopefully people learn about something and then they seek out more information. They pick up a book, if they've watched Watchmen, to kind of learn more about Tulsa. They try to understand that Tulsa wasn't the first instance of this, [that it] had followed the Red Summer of 1919. And it wasn't the last instance where there were white mobs attacking Black neighborhoods throughout the 20th century.

History, we're constantly producing more of it, right? And I think the question when you learn something is: what else are you going to do with that knowledge and how is it going to shape the kind of choices you make in the future? And so I'm entirely comfortable with people learning about things through TV and movies, as long as they choose to hopefully find more information to kind of situate that knowledge in the present.

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How do you see the Black Lives Matter movement in conjunction with what's happening with Black History Month today? Is it something that you think will be talked about in future Black History Months, the Black Lives Matter movement?

It absolutely will be talked about in future Black History Months. I mean, people are talking about it right now in Black History Month.

I think [Black Lives Matter and Black History Month] can exist in productive tension, hopefully. And what I mean by that is: One of the things that the Black Lives Matter movement has laid bare is that the civil rights movements of the 1950s and 60s, for all the achievements that they achieved, they didn't solve the problems. The problems that were in front of the country were massive, and that the kind of backlash that we saw at the civil rights in the 1960s really prevented a lot of the key achievements that people were hoping to see, in terms of voting rights, in terms of fair housing, in terms of equal education, in terms of an end to police brutality.

And so Black Lives Matter, I think, makes clear that while we can celebrate the legacies of people like Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, the things that they were fighting for haven't been won yet. Those races haven't been finished. And so it's trying to really be attuned to the fact that representation isn't enough.

It's not enough to be able to point to these famous figures or point to the first Black president, someone like Barack Obama, and think that our nation has somehow solved problems that are so deeply rooted in our nation's history.

I think whatever your politics are, I think you have to look at the demands that are put forward by Black Lives Matter activists and kind of deal with them honestly. Listen to what those demands are, and the kind of productive changes people are trying to produce in our country.

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How do you sort of categorize how some white Americans feel when they say they feel defensive? If they're taught about things that have happened in the Black community in America, they feel like, 'Oh, well, you know, slavery was not during my time. I didn't commit these acts. You know, why should I sort of be looked upon as the enemy in a way?' Because these are sentiments that some white Americans have. What would you say to a white person who has that feeling of defensiveness?

It's a good question. And it's actually something I encounter from students in the classroom quite often. The first thing I'd say is that history is not meant to make us feel comfortable. If history only makes us feel comfortable, it means we're only focusing on the good things. And that's not the job of historians. We are meant to talk honestly about what happened in the past, and those stories sometimes will make us happy, sometimes will bring us joy, but often it will raise uncomfortable things that we just have to confront.

"History is not meant to make us feel comfortable. If history only makes us feel comfortable, it means we're only focusing on the good things. And that's not the job of historians." - Matthew Delmont, professor at Dartmouth College

The other thing I would say is: It's not about you as an individual. But each of us, regardless of our racial background, regardless of how long our families have been in the country, we're positioned in these these structures that preexist our own our own lifetimes and either they've benefited us in some ways, or they've harmed us in other ways.

When people talk about the history of slavery and what that means in the country, to talk about the history of Jim Crow segregation or the history of police brutality and how it's still with us today, it's not meant to point the finger at individual people necessarily. It's meant to identify the fact that we're all enmeshed in this larger system that continues to benefit some people and harm and in some cases kill others.

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Like I said, that's not comfortable for everyone. That's particularly not comfortable for a lot of white Americans. That doesn't change the fact that it's true. And again, my job as a historian is to try to present the actual history of our nation in a way that encourages people, regardless of the racial backgrounds, to reckon with it. And then hopefully in that reckoning, choose more just and democratic visions of where they think we can go.

I'm encouraged and heartened by how many people are talking about these issues, studying about these issues since the summer of 2020, folks who might not have normally seen themselves as caring deeply about these histories of racism in our country. I think our talking about them as an incredibly important first step. I think the next step then, is understanding what policies would need to change to actually produce the actions and the outcomes that would go along with this this talking and studying. And I think that that's going to take work.

Do you think that Black History Month can play an important and vital role in teaching this history and moving us forward? Do you think it is doing so now?

I hope so. I think it's an important step in the right direction, I think for a couple of reasons.

I think for Black Americans, these stories will always be important because they give us a sense of strength and resilience. Understanding the tremendous work people have put in to survive in this country is  inspiring. And it can be frustrating sometimes that my grandparents' generation went through this, my parents' generation went through this, and our generation is going through it still.

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I think for Americans who aren't Black, I think these stories are powerful because, again, this is fully part of our nation's history. It can reveal so much about the ways that our country has righted wrongs that have existed in the past. And then it can also reveal the vast array of things that we haven't seen, the types of improvements that we need to see. And so I think history is not the only thing we need to do. But I think history, and Black History Month, can be one important piece of the puzzle, in hopefully moving the country forward. 

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or tweet Morning Edition host Mitch Wertlieb @mwertlieb.

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A graduate of NYU with a Master's Degree in journalism, Mitch has more than 20 years experience in radio news. He got his start as news director at NYU's college station, and moved on to a news director (and part-time DJ position) for commercial radio station WMVY on Martha's Vineyard. But public radio was where Mitch wanted to be and he eventually moved on to Boston where he worked for six years in a number of different capacities at member station a Senior Producer, Editor, and fill-in co-host of the nationally distributed Here and Now. Mitch has been a guest host of the national NPR sports program "Only A Game". He's also worked as an editor and producer for international news coverage with Monitor Radio in Boston.
Matt Smith worked for Vermont Public from 2017 to 2023 as managing editor and senior producer of Vermont Edition.
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