Black History Month 2011: African-Americans and the Civil WarCarolyn Castiglia
I’ve been thinking all morning about Black History Month and how to talk about Black History Month. The Associated Press published a piece in February 2009 suggesting that perhaps it was time for Black History Month to “fade into history,” given the fact that “Obama’s election means… African-American history IS American history and should be remembered and recognized every day of the year.”
I couldn’t agree more. African-American history and culture defines American culture. And the need for Black History Month may be obscured further since more and more young Americans identify as multiethnic, as noted by The New York Times this weekend. “Optimists say the blending of the races is a step toward transcending race, to a place where America is free of bigotry, prejudice and programs like affirmative action,” the Times reports, adding, “Pessimists say that a more powerful multiracial movement will lead to more stratification and come at the expense of the number and influence of other minority groups, particularly African-Americans.”
I certainly identify with the optimistic views detailed above, but I also understand the need to feel pride in one’s heritage, which is why I think Black History Month still has a place in the zeitgeist. I’ve been wondering all morning, is there a way to talk to kids about Black History Month that doesn’t highlight a separatist mindset? How can we talk about Black History within the scope of American history, focusing on the creation of America as we know it today?
Then I discovered that The Association for the Study of African American Life and History, founded in 1915 by “the Father of Black History” Dr. Carter G. Woodson, has chosen a theme for Black History Month 2011: African-Americans and the Civil War. Reading about Black Soldiers in the Civil War on the National Archives website, it’s interesting to see how a need for more Union soldiers seemed to be a motivating factor for the eradication of slavery in this country. The Emancipation Proclamation took effect January 1, 1963, freeing slaves from the Confederacy and allowing them to join the Union army. But it also left “one million slaves in Union territory still in bondage,” according to PBS. They were not freed until the implementation of the 13th amendment in 1965.
According to historians at the National Archives, “Frederick Douglass encouraged black men to become soldiers to ensure eventual full citizenship.” Douglass argued, “Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letter, U.S., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket, there is no power on earth that can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship.”
After the war, Douglass went on to support women’s suffrage and to speak about racism in Unions. It seems Douglass would appreciate the growing multiethinic identities and racially transcendent culture in the U.S. In 1884, he married a white feminist, Helen Pitts, and is famous for saying, “I would unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong.”