Editor’s note: This story was originally published Jan. 31, 2022.

The month of February reliably brings with it Presidents Day sales, chocolate, roses and questions about why we still have an entire month dedicated to Black history. The sales and the sweets are salutary distractions from the doldrums of midwinter, but the questions go straight to the heart of how we think of ourselves as a nation, how we came to be and the gap between those two things.

As someone who has taught and written about American history, specifically African American history, for more than two decades, I’m heartened to see the public reckoning with our past that we undertake each year even as I know it will invariably be construed, at least in some quarters, as a kind of racial entitlement and spawn the facile question, “Why is there no white history month?”

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The celebration of Black History Month owes its origins to the historian Carter G. Woodson, who was born in 1875 in Virginia to parents who had been enslaved. He did not start high school until age 20 but went on to earn a bachelor’s degree at Berea College in Kentucky and a doctorate in history from Harvard University.

Scarred by his experiences with racism, Woodson deployed his formidable intellect to confronting the lies and historical distortions upon which the edifice of segregation and racial subjugation rested. In 1926 he created “Negro History Week” to help promote this cause. He chose February in homage to the abolitionist Frederick Douglass and to Abraham Lincoln, both of whom were born in that month.

Woodson died in 1950, but his work continued under the auspices of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, an organization he founded. In 1976, to mark the 50th anniversary of Negro History Week, the group expanded the campaign to the entire month.

The cause to which Woodson devoted his life has not yet been achieved. We still live in a society where race is correlated to disparities in health care, education, wages, home values and the criminal justice system. In May 2020 these realities became starkly apparent as the nation watched in horror the excruciatingly long video of George Floyd’s death. As protests erupted in every state in the union, the question “How did we get here?” could be heard echoing in the chaotic streets.

The fact is that, on some level, we have always been here. But because we have tended to treat history as a resume — that is, a recitation of our achievements and virtues — it can be difficult to recognize this fact.

Consider two experiences I had that underscore this point. 

Some years ago, I was invited to give a prestigious address at Bates College in Maine. As if to emphasize the fact that I was in New England in January, a storm blew in shortly after my arrival, blanketing the campus in a thick layer of snow. Despite the weather, people stopped me as I made my way across campus and told me how much they were looking forward to my talk, which was to be held in the college’s stunningly appointed chapel. Just before the event began, the school’s president introduced herself and then took me over to meet Sen. Angus King, who had come in despite the weather.

My talk that day was about the weight of history in the present. Buoyed by the hospitality, I climbed to the pulpit, thanked the president for the invitation, acknowledged King and then looked out into the pews filled with students, faculty and guests and began my comments by bluntly telling my audience, “This place only exists because of racism.” There was a moment of uncomfortable silence before people registered the meaning of my statement.

Maine came into the union in 1820 as part of the famed Missouri Compromise. In 1819 the Missouri Territory was on the verge of statehood. At the time the nation consisted of 22 states, evenly divided between those that allowed slavery and those that prohibited it. Admitting Missouri as a slave state would have upset this balance, giving slaveholding states two more seats in the United States Senate than free states had and increasing the number of slavery’s defenders in the House of Representatives. The recognition of this fact led to a yearlong stalemate that persisted until Speaker of the House Henry Clay negotiated a compromise allowing Missouri to enter the union as a slave state while establishing the 36th parallel as the northernmost line in which slavery could be permitted. The potential legislative imbalance was addressed by allowing Maine, a new free state, to be carved out of the northern portion of Massachusetts. Thus, the absence of slavery in Maine effectively underwrote the cruelty of bondage in Missouri.

I left Maine and spoke at an event at Florida State University. I told the crowd about the comments I’d made in Maine and, as a murmur of commentary spread among them, I said, “But before you get too comfortable, let’s talk about how Florida got here.”

The First Seminole War of 1817-18, in which Gen. Andrew Jackson seized and occupied a significant portion of the then-Spanish-controlled territory of Florida, were the culmination of longstanding conflicts with the Indigenous population there. But Jackson’s invasion also came at the behest of slaveholders in Georgia who complained that the Seminoles refused to return fugitive slaves who made it over the border into the territory. (The Seminole forces included African Americans who fought against Jackson’s army rather than be returned to slavery.) Jackson’s occupation of Pensacola eventually led to the administration of President James Monroe working out a hasty diplomatic solution with Spain, which agreed to cede the territory in 1821.

I flew home to New York from Florida, but had I wanted to continue the theme I could have flown to California, whose admission to the union as a free state was leveraged against the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which obliged the federal government to locate people who had escaped slavery and drag them back into bondage.

Or Texas, which fought a war of independence in large measure to protect slavery from the Mexican government, which was largely hostile to the institution. (Mexico abolished slavery in 1829, 36 years before the United States did.) The Texans joined the United States in 1845 but seceded again just 16 years later and fought a second war, the American Civil War, for the protection of slavery.

I could have flown to Philadelphia and talked about the clauses of the Constitution that protected slavery and stymied Black equality. There are more examples — many of them — but the point here is that not only is our history as a nation bound to the question of slavery, and therefore race, but our basic geography is as well. We can’t fully understand why the country looks the way it does without confronting these matters. 

My comments in Maine and Florida were given in the context of talks about Black history, but they were also pertinent to the fundamental story of how our states came to be. There is no white history month because there has never been a question in this country about white people belonging. But for Black people the struggle for full and equal inclusion remains pertinent to our everyday lives.

The irony of Black History Month is that, despite the chronic questions about its relevance or whether it is divisive, it is easily the most sustained engagement the American public has with any of its history during the year. Given the polarities of our politics, the threats to our democracy and the many crises confronting us, we need more engagement with our history, not less. February just happens to be our best starting place. 

Jelani Cobb is the director of the Ira A. Lipman Center for Journalism and Civil and Human Rights at Columbia University and a staff writer at The New Yorker.

This story appears in the February issue of Deseret MagazineLearn more about how to subscribe.