Here are two recommended books to read during this year’s Black History Month, which is occurring amid the pandemic. Both are timely, and speak to the topics of history and health.
The first is about the history of Black History Month itself. The book is “Carter G. Woodson: A Life in Black History” (Southern Biography Series) by Jaqueline Anne Goggin.
Published in 1993, this biography recounts the life and career of Carter G. Woodson (1875-1950), one of the most influential personalities in African American history. Known as the “Father of Black History,” Woodson in 1926 launched what he called “Negro History Week,” which later became Black History Month.
Woodson was born in Virginia to former slaves. Although his parents were illiterate, they encouraged and supported his ambition to attain an education, which he did at Berea College in Kentucky, the University of Chicago and Harvard University, where he earned a Ph.D. in history in 1912. He became the second African American (after W.E.B. Du Bois, one of the founders of the NAACP and an illustrious academic and civil rights leader) to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard.
After Harvard, Woodson embarked on a lifelong journey that made him an eminent author, historian, editor, publisher and educator. Central to this odyssey was his commitment to research and publish, preserve and publicize the history and heritage of Black Americans. His mission, he stated, was to “make the world see the African American as a participant rather than a lay figure in history.”
Consequently, in 1915, Woodson helped found the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History — later named the Association for the Study of African American Life and History — with its primary goal to highlight and recognize African American historical contributions.
Woodson established and edited the scholarly publication The Journal of Negro History in 1916 (renamed The Journal of African American History in 2002). He published the first edition with money borrowed against his life insurance policy. The Journal provided a platform for Black and white scholars to publish research on Black history.
To help serve the needs of teachers and general readers with African American history, Woodson created The Negro History Bulletin in 1937 (renamed The Black History Bulletin in 2001). In contrast to The Journal, The Bulletin provided teachers with the historical review and overview to create curriculum for middle and high school students. Such lessons were aimed at preparing schools and teachers to become culturally responsive and educated about teaching Black history, and at making Black students take pride in their heritage and value their ancestors’ contribution to American history.
Woodson also formed the African American-owned Associated Publishers Press in 1921. Because white enterprises were mostly reluctant to publish books written by or about African Americans, he used his company to publish books on Black history. He wrote many books himself. Woodson also taught the first Black history courses at Howard University in Washington, D.C.
Influenced by what was positively happening in Black history and culture, especially in the “New Negro Movement,” also known as the “Harlem Renaissance,” Woodson started Negro History Week in February 1926. (Woodson had chosen February for the pioneering weeklong celebration to honor the birth months of abolitionist Frederick Douglass and President Abraham Lincoln.) His mobilization and public advocacy campaign to launch the commemoration was visionary and dauntless. He lobbied schools and organizations, which he urged to participate in activities that encouraged and promoted the study and teaching of African American history in schools and raise historical consciousness.
Du Bois would later say that Woodson’s establishment of Negro History Week was the “greatest single accomplishment” of the Harlem Renaissance. With the expansion of Negro History Week to Black History Month nationwide in the 1960s, that accomplishment now extends beyond the renaissance.
The associations, journals and the celebration of Black history he founded still exist and continue to this present day. These projects allowed Woodson to significantly contribute to the Black past by reframing its depths and contexts, complexities and paradoxes, collectivity/community and spirit.
The second book is about health and appropriately titled “A Book of Medical Discourses: In Two Parts” (1883) by Rebecca Lee Crumpler (1831-1895), a pioneering African American woman with a history that was fascinating and groundbreaking on multiple fronts.
Crumpler was the first Black woman physician in the U.S. She was also the first Black woman to author a medical book — a collection of nearly two decades of Crumpler’s journal and autobiographical notes and discourses on medical matters, including health care delivery, mostly as they pertained to women, children and the poor.
Crumpler was born in Delaware; raised in Pennsylvania by her aunt who nursed the ill; and educated at Boston-based New England Female Medical College, where she studied medicine from 1860-1864, graduating as “Doctress.” Her enrollment was an anomaly, as most medical schools during the period did not admit African Americans. Prior to her admission, Crumpler served for eight years as a nurse apprentice in Massachusetts. She stated that the doctors she worked with during this time gave her recommendation to the medical college.
When she enrolled in 1860, there were 300 women out of 54,543 physicians in the country and none of them were African American.
After she graduated, Crumpler practiced in Boston. She later served after the Civil War as a medical doctor in Virginia, where she worked with the Freedmen’s Bureau, which was charged with helping formerly enslaved people transition to freedom and citizenship. There, she said, she found “ample opportunities to become acquainted with the diseases of women and children.” She encountered acts of discrimination, including racism and sexism, from her colleagues, pharmacists and many others on a daily basis.
After her service in Virginia ended, she returned to Boston to undertake private practice — and took time to write her book. The first part covered illnesses of children from infancy to 5 years, and those of “women and youth of both sexes” in the second. Essentially, the book is for women, about how they should take better care of themselves, their health, bodies and children. She dedicated the book “To Mothers, Nurses and all who may desire to mitigate the afflictions of the human race.” In her introduction, she further stated: “I desire that my book shall be a primary reader in the hands of every woman; and yet nonetheless suited to any who may be conversant with all branches of medical science.”
She declared that her “chief desire” in the book was to communicate the “possibilities of prevention,” adding that numerous deaths were “from diseases which could have been prevented, or cut short by timely aid.” In all, she reinforced the medical truism that prevention is better than cure.
Describing her mission in life as a “liking” to “relieve the suffering of others,” Crumpler also advocated for affordable and proper medical care for all families and for all income levels; appropriate diet and nutrition as strategies to prevent premature deaths from severe diseases; and enfranchisement as the means to empower women — an empowerment that should significantly leverage their input in policies about their health and bodies. Expressing her selflessness, she stated that she sometimes treated children “regardless” “of remuneration.”
Although the “medical discourses” Crumpler wrote about may belong to another time and century, the issues they raise about health — especially regarding African Americans — still exist, evident in how COVID-19 continues to infect and cause the deaths of more Black people than other racial groups.
Woodson and Crumpler are pioneering and inspiring African Americans whose relevance should extend beyond Black History Month. If Woodson blazed trails in Black history as a discipline to transform racial consciousness, Crumpler pioneered women’s health as central to “mitigate the afflictions of the human race.”
Patrick Bernard is an associate professor of English at Franklin & Marshall College.