Tuesday, August 12, 2014
August 12, 2014: Birthday Specials: American Memory Days
[For a week that begins with my Dad’s birthday and ends with mine, I’ll share a series of posts that engage with birthdays, both others’ and mine. Cel … ebrate AmericanStudier birthdays, come on!]
The 2011 wish for the AmericanStudies Elves with which I inaugurated my calendar of American Memory Days.
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).
Next bday special tomorrow,
BenPS. Anything you’d add (bday wishes or otherwise)?