Dr. Carter G. Woodson established the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History in 1915. Woodson, a black scholar, wanted to bring the black man into the history of the United States.
Eleven years later, in 1926, he launched Negro History Week to raise awareness of the contributions of blacks. Carter picked February for Negro History Week because of the birthdays of Frederick Douglas and Abraham Lincoln.
Scholars and philosophers have long examined the question of history, what it is and why we study it.
Probably the most widely quoted observation is that of philosopher George Santayana: "Those that do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
What are the lessons of the past that we might be thinking about today?
Black history has particular importance because of the unique black experience in America. That is, a history in which we began as slaves.
A slave has no history because he has no control over his life. Every day is the same. A slave's past, present, and future is determined by someone else.
So black entry into American history might be understood as a chapter in the end of black oppression. It is a history of human beings, gaining responsibility for their own lives, and how they chose and choose to exercise that responsibility.
Black History Month is generally not a time for thought and introspection. It's used more as a time to celebrate black achievement.
But I think it's worthwhile to also sober up and take a serious look at things. Celebration is great, and there has been a lot of progress and achievement. But prodigious problems remain and we ought to try to understand so we can overcome.
If we understand oppression as interference in an individual's ability to exercise control of and responsibility for their own life, then I see oppression defining three distinct chapters in black American history.
The first was slavery. The second Jim Crow. And the third, the growth and flourishing of the welfare state.
In the first two chapters, the oppression was initiated from the outside. In chapter three, the welfare state, blacks voluntarily relinquished control and turned responsibility of their own lives over to others.
We're still in chapter three today, and blacks should be aware of it.
The path to freedom has two steps. First, removal of external barriers. Second, assumption of personal responsibility for one's life.
Racial consciousness remains, of course, ubiquitous in America. Race sells, so the media relentlessly keeps it alive. And race means power, so politicians keep it alive.
But race is not a barrier for black achievement today.