Texas historian weighs in on Black History Month

It’s midday at Huston-Tillotson University, and rows of offices are quiet, a lunchtime lull. Dr. Theodore Francis’ office, however, is buzzing with activity.

As I sit talking to the professor, a series of students eagerly appear in his doorway. One student drops in to ask Dr. Francis what he missed the other day in class. There’s a moment between them, a sense of rapport. “I’ll see you in class,” Francis reminds the student.

Dr. Francis teaches history, a subject that he says is a lot like the rearview mirror of your car.

“History informs us of what’s behind us, so that we can make informed decisions about how to engage with the road ahead,” he explains. “But just like the actual rearview mirror in your car, you’ve got to adjust it properly.”

My abridged Q&A with the professor follows.

GW: What’s the importance of educating Texans on Black History Month?

Dr. Francis: In line with what Carter G. Woodson had in mind when he originated Negro History Week [in 1929], which of course has become Black History Month, we see that Woodson was trying to push for a broader acknowledgement and recognition of the humanity and accomplishments of people of African descent, primarily African Americans.

If you want to talk about what Black History Month means to Texans, it causes us to think a bit more clearly, to be a bit more inclusive in the racial diversity of the state’s history. From the contributions of Esteban the Moor, who traveled with the Spaniards to colonize the Southwest, what is now Texas, taking it right on up to Barbara Jordan and other famous folks who worked here and contributed to the state’s politics, economy and society, the historical project isn’t just a historical project… it’s a humanity project, helping folks to recognize and acknowledge the humanity of African people today by looking at history.

GW: What impact does representation have on institutions like universities and workplaces? Is Black History Month intended to promote representation?

Dr. Francis: We do know that sociologists and anthropologists have hard data and statistics on how representation does affect perception and the culture of institutions. If you talk in terms of gender and the recent debates in Silicon Valley, you find workplace cultures that are very dismissive, or even openly hostile, towards women whether it’s women in positions of leadership or women in general.

We can make a similar conceptual leap across to issues of race, and that’s something that’s been mentioned a number of times with various emphasis throughout history.

Definitely, the study of Black history isn’t just for Black people. In fact, going back to the impetus of Carter G. Woodson, a lot of [Black History Month] really is trying to change the culture of America and American society, which is often done through changing the culture and diversity of specific American institutions.

GW: Do you have any final words on what role history plays going forward?

Dr. Francis: History can be a rearview mirror. Like the one in your car, it informs us of what’s behind us, so that we can make informed decisions about how to engage with the road ahead. But just like the actual rearview mirror in your car, you’ve got to adjust it properly. If your mirror is skewed, you might just be seeing one side of the street, and you don’t realize the Mack truck right behind you.

Black history, if you want to think of it this way, is a means of adjusting our historical rearview mirror so that we can look at a community that has been historically ignored in broader discourse America. Hopefully that should help us engage with the road towards social, economic, political, racial progress in a more humane and egalitarian fashion going forward.