"Black History Doesn't Start with Enslavement"

An important perspective about Black History Month from Professor Angi Porter

It has been almost 100 years since Carter G. Woodson created Negro History Week, which later became Black History Month. I think it's notable that many of the central challenges outlined in Woodson's work remain salient today—challenges regarding how we learn and teach Black history.

One of those challenges is the thought that our history begins with enslavement. It begins in Africa. And from the vast expanse of that history, which informs the present, there are valuable lessons for us about how to think about, let's say, "justice," for example. These are the explorations and conversations being had in Africana studies, the study of African people, African history and African culture—on the continent and throughout the diaspora. That's not only about the subject matter, but it's also about the approach—it's about centering the thoughts and systems of thought of African people as we study. And we are carrying that work into law schools with Africana Legal Studies.

The work of Woodson and Black History Month reminds me that it is incumbent upon us to think beyond these formal structures of education—like law schools—and learn and teach the history of our people in the spaces we have to maintain and create for ourselves. When you know your history, you understand who you are, and you can figure out where you're going.

This is not a new idea. It is an idea that many people in our tradition have espoused. However, we have to continue saying it out loud given we live in a world and in a time where a question mark continues to be placed on the value of Black History. We cannot become convinced of that. Woodson's work is timeless because it reminds us to learn Black History for ourselves, to teach ourselves—despite any barriers or challenges.

So, this time of year is re-centering. It reenergizes us so that we may deeply study and collectively discuss all year long. This time of year was never intended to be a limited exercise, it must be sustained, lifelong study and it must permeate everything we do. 

—Angi Porter

Professor Angi Porter is an assistant professor of law who joined the American University Washington College of Law in 2022. She was previously a Research Fellow at Georgetown University Law Center and an adjunct professor of law at Mitchell Hamline School of Law. She teaches Torts, Higher Education Law, and Africana Legal Studies.

Porter is blazing the trail toward a new discipline of law. Her recent article, "Africana Legal Studies: A New Theoretical Approach to Law & Protocol" was published in the Michigan Journal of Race and Law.

~ Video by Keith Pierce