Black History Month and the Evolution of Meaning

In a special presentation honoring African American Heritage Month, Dr. John Wolf, associate vice chancellor for diversity and academic leadership development for the University System of Maryland, reflected on 164 years of American history and asked his UMUC audience to consider the meaning of Black History Month—how it has changed and how it is different for every individual.

“For each and every person in this room, no matter how steeped you think you are in African American history, that knowledge is changed and affected and reshaped in many ways, based on what goes on in the world around us,” he said. “The past and the present and the yet to be.”

The meaning may be different for people who took part in the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s than it is for younger people steeped in the Hip Hop culture and the Black Lives Matter movement, he said.

“In the first quarter of the 21st century we are engulfed by contemporary movements both convergent and divergent,” he said. “Things are happening to us and around us in such magnitude and proportions that they are sometimes frustrating, sometimes invigorating. Thus our values, our beliefs, our attitudes and our views of the world in which we live are questioned and challenged with or without reason.”

Dr. Wolf, who is past president of two historically black universities—Savannah State University and Kentucky State University—shared five texts written between 1852 and 2015 that showed how notions about the meaning of black history have evolved.

They included an 1852 text by Frederick Douglass, “The Meaning of the Fourth of July to the Negro,” which points out the hypocrisy of the celebration; Carter G. Woodson’s 1933 book, “The Mis-Education of the Negro,” which notes how African Americans had to teach themselves if they wanted to find truth; and Howard Thurman’s 1971, “The Search for Common Ground,” about the need for mutual dependence.

He used E.D. Hirsch’s 1987 national best-seller, “Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know,” to expand on how cultural literacy must include information about all segments of the American population. And he ended with Eric Liu’s 2015 work, “How to be an American,” that points out how the white culture soon will no longer be dominant in the United States, and how the Internet has reduced barriers to making and sharing culture.

“If you rely on network news you are culturally illiterate,” Wolf said, noting that movements like Black Lives Matter and the University of Missouri protest well up on the Internet.

“Today and tomorrow you need to be in touch with alternative sources of information about all of the things that affect your daily lives. You watch for things that are important to you, all of the things that make you culturally literate.”

So, he asked, what is the meaning of Black History Month? For Wolf, it changes constantly.

“It changes depending on what I let in from the world in which I find myself at any given moment,” he said. “It is important what is happening right here and right now.”