Monday, December 19, 2011
December 19, 2011: Making My List 1: Memory Days
[This week, as Chanukah begins and Christmas and Kwanzaa get ever closer, I’ll be blogging about my AmericanStudies holiday list: my requests (to the AmericanStudies Elves, of course) for five changes I’d love to see in our national narratives and conversations. This is the first in that series.]
AmericanStudies Elves, I would like for every day to memorialize and celebrate an inspiring American.
In the Roman Catholic community, almost every day is dedicated to a particular saint, allowing for each of these significant and inspiring figures and lives to be remembered in his or her turn. The saints’ lives mean and symbolize many different possible things, of course, and so I’m sure that each Catholic, each family, and each church have their particularly significant saints and days, as well as their unique and contextualized ways of remembering and celebrating. Yet the calendar of saints’ days nonetheless serves as a broadly communal connecting thread, a manner of linking all Catholics through this shared set of exemplary historical and cultural figures.
I understand why we Americans only currently celebrate the birthdays of a few particularly influential presidents and one very unique and impressive Civil Rights leader, and as I argued in both of those posts I think we can and should keep and build on the meanings of those holidays. But the truth, as I hope this blog has frequently demonstrated, is that there are many other inspiring Americans, and most of them are not as already-prominent in our national memories and narratives as the Washingtons, Lincolns, and Kings. And so, AS Elves, I propose that each day Americans memorialize and celebrate one inspiring fellow citizen who was born on that day—no possible such subject, of course, is a saint, and I don’t mean to imply that we should sanctify any of these complex historical figures or the issues and events to which they connect; but I do believe that we can and should focus on their best and most inspiring work and meanings, to remember not only the darker historical realities but how Americans have powerfully built upon and yet transcended them.
The man I’d like to nominate for today, December 19th, is a particularly good example of what I mean, on two distinct levels. Carter G. Woodson (1875-1950) was born to freed slaves working as sharecroppers in Virginia, as Reconstruction ended and the era that came to be known as the nadir of African American life commenced; but his path took him forward to Harvard (where in 1912 he became one of the first African Americans to receive a Harvard PhD, in History) and back into our past (as he founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History and the Journal of Negro History, among many other efforts). And Woodson’s most lasting legacy directly models my goals here: he is known as the “Father of Black History Month,” as his multi-decade advocacy for an educational commemoration of African American histories led in 1926 to February’s Negro History Week (the direct precursor to our contemporary Black History Month).
So Elves, I ask that today henceforth be known as Carter Woodson Day; I’ll briefly highlight another inspiring American at the end of each day’s post from now on, and when this blog becomes part of an AmericanStudier website (on which look for more in the new year!), I’ll try to create a full calendar and ask for the input from all my fellow AmericanStudies Elves’ Helpers. Next wish list item tomorrow,
PS. Any Americans you think we should definitely include on our calendar?