Black History Month provides an opportunity to reflect on the East Side Freedom Library’s commitment to activist scholarship. Black History Month is the descendant of “Negro History Week,” which was initiated in February 1926 by Carter G. Woodson. Born in Virginia, Woodson graduated from Frederick Douglass High School in West Virginia and became the school’s principal only four years later. By 1912, he had earned his Ph.D. from Harvard University, but his major work – his activist scholarship – bridged the academic world and the African American community. In 1915, he launched the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, and, a year later, THE JOURNAL OF NEGRO HISTORY. Both involved African Americans – and allies – from all walks of life as well as academic scholars. A decade later, Woodson began the tradition of Negro History Week, which was celebrated in communities as well as universities. In the 1950s and 1960s it had a symbiotic relationship with the civil rights movement, informing it and growing with it. By 1976, it had grown into Black History Month.
Last June, East Side Freedom Library hosted a symposium on activist scholarship. More than 25 young women and men presented a wide range of work – labor history, women’s history, African American history, research in political economy, assessments of strategies for workplace and community organizing. One outstanding presentations was by Westenley Alcenat, born and orphaned in Haiti, an immigrant to Minnesota who graduated from Macalester and, in 2018, earned his Ph.D. from Columbia University. Wes, now an Assistant Professor of History at Fordham University, presented on “Liberation Historiography and the Gift of Black Folk,: Why Black Historiography Matters for Understanding American History.” Wes’s paper was published a few months later in BLACK PERSPECTIVES, the on-line journal of the African American intellectual History Society, who recognized it as one of the ten most important essays they published in 2018.
Black History Month has remained a vibrant expression of activist scholarship, a tradition being nourished by the East Side Freedom Library. Our shelves are bursting with the books of Carter G. Woodson, W.E.B. DuBois, James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and a whole bunch of writers you might not – yet – have heard of. Their work not only tells African American stories, but it inspires our Hmong, Karen, Ethiopian, Mexican, and European-descended neighbors to celebrate the writers and artists who have told their stories – and to share their own stories with each other.
This February, in partnership with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, ESFL invites exploration of the meanings of home, and in partnership with the Twin Cities Japanese American Citizens League, ESFL invites reflections on the legacies of the incarceration of Japanese Americans during WWII. We are also hosting Shiloh Clamons’ art work, ISIS Is Not, created out of her experiences in refugee camps in Europe. Our activist scholarship is not just a celebration but a call to critical thinking and the creation of new knowledge. We think Carter G. Woodson would approve.