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Researching Black History Month – and Everyday Black History
Professor and author Matt Delmont talks about his digital media project, Black Quotidian, and the “messy” nature of history
In January 2016, University of Arizona history professor Matt Delmont launched a 12-month project, Black Quotidian, to highlight everyday moments and lives in African-American history. This site features historical articles from black newspapers such as the Atlanta Daily World, Baltimore Afro-American, Chicago Defender, and Philadelphia Tribune.
“These newspapers [digitized as part of the ProQuest Black Historical Newspaper collection] are among the most important sources for understanding black history and culture in the twentieth century,” said Dr. Delmont. “By emphasizing the ordinary or mundane aspects of history, I hope both to call attention to people and events that are not commonly featured in textbooks, documentaries, or Black History Month celebrations, while also casting new light on well-known black history subjects.”
Each day for a year, at least one newspaper article from that date in history was posted on the Black Quotidian site with a brief commentary.
Now, we check back in with Dr. Delmont to find out what he learned in putting together this project, and where it’s taking him next.
Black Quotidian – New perspectives in research and teaching
“It makes sense as a researcher to know what you are looking for and to focus exclusively on that,” Dr. Delmont explained. “But the downside of that is you miss out on discovering what’s in the periphery, all the people and events that are outside your realm of research.”
As the author of three books - Why Busing Failed: Race, Media, and the National Resistance to School Desegregation (University of California Press, 2016); Making Roots: A Nation Captivated (University of California Press, 2016); and The Nicest Kids in Town: American Bandstand, Rock ‘n’ Roll, and the Struggle for Civil Rights in 1950s Philadelphia (University of California Press, 2012) – Dr. Delmont knows that being able to search content with laser precision is imperative in the research process.
However, that kind of hyper-focused immersion in a specific topic doesn’t allow for much of the excitement of serendipitous discovery, which a project like Black Quotidian inspires. So working on Black Quotidian sparked a new way for Dr. Delmont to approach research, by making just a minimal change.
“Rather than searching ProQuest Black Historical Newspapers by keywords, which is where a researcher would usually start,” he said, “searching the database by dates can point research in many different directions.”
These different directions garnered “lots of surprises,” Dr. Delmont said. “Each day I discovered something fascinating, an unexpected take on international events or a local news story that was new to me, from front page news and advertisements, to letters to the editor and coverage of community news like social dances and regional sports teams. So much I didn’t know about even as a professional historian.”
This more spontaneous approach to research also proved beneficial to Dr. Delmont in promoting engagement and instilling a sense of adventure for history students in the classroom.
“This can be a hard thing for undergraduates to understand: that history should be messy,” Dr. Delmont said.
By using Black Quotidian and Black Historical Newspapers in his classes, Dr. Delmont’s students can get away from thinking about history as a static subject all about fixed dates and events. Rather, by exploring historical newspapers, students are able to develop a sense of history as a dynamic, on-going conversation where they can share their own research discoveries and debate their ideas.
“I want students to know it is okay to get lost in history and build new ideas from the ground,” Dr. Delmont added. “Rather than think the textbook already has all of the information there is to know on a topic, I want first-year students to feel they can contribute a new perspective.”
The evolution of studies in black history
When Dr. Delmont introduced Black Quotidian on the ProQuest blog in February 2016, he talked a bit about historian Carter G. Woodson who dedicated his career to the study of African-American history and culture. As the result of Woodson’s efforts, the first Negro History Week was launched in 1926.
This event officially came to be Black History Month in 1976.
In a recent conversation, Dr. Delmont referred to a 2008 article by Sam Wineburg and Chancey Monte-Sano (“Famous Americans: The Changing Pantheon of American Heroes,” available in ProQuest Central) to demonstrate how Black History Month has influenced students’ understanding and recognition of pivotal figures in American history. The article focuses on a study of high school students who were asked to name the 10 most famous Americans, with the stipulation they not include presidents or their wives.
Teachers and principals expected the students’ lists would be heavy on pop culture figures, such as hip-hop artists, sports stars, and other celebrities. These figures did appear on many of the students’ lists, but the most listed people were historical figures, and the top three were African-Americans. Of the students surveyed, the most famous Americans were Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and Harriet Tubman.
With this is mind, we asked Dr. Delmont, is it still necessary to have Black History Month? Isn’t all just American history?
“For generations, focus in Black History has been on the most exceptional figures, such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks,” Dr. Delmont pointed out. “Now, studies in Black History are an opportunity for students to get to know more about next tier figures like John Lewis and Shirley Chisholm – people who are maybe not as famous, but who have made significant contributions to American history. And Black History also needs to be about moving beyond next tier figures to look at local African-American histories.”
“Historically marginalized groups tend to fall through the cracks,” Dr. Delmont continued. Black History Month, and studies in black history, he said, are necessary to put the focus on various dimensions of African-American history, and the stories that have gone unheard, so we can “tie these histories into the larger whole.”
In this way, all of these histories come together to shape American history.
“History is not a series of great things that happened,” Dr. Delmont added. “History is about power, and who is telling the story. It’s messy; it’s multiple stories unfolding simultaneously. Depending on background and experience, people are going to have different relationships to history, and in my classroom, I try to create an atmosphere that fosters empathy, where the students can journey together to discover the past. And we will encounter some things that are uncomfortable.”
And that’s ok, Dr. Delmont insisted. He doesn’t expect his students to always agree, and he encourages conversations and debate – as long as it is handled respectfully and rooted in evidence. And primary sources like Black Historical Newspapers are crucial for providing such evidence.
What’s next for Black Quotidian?
Dr. Delmont said that Black Quotidian will never be a book, and was never meant to be a book. It’s something new and different, a digital publication, to promote a new and different engagement with history.
“I want it to be an overwhelming base of material where students can get lost in the history and find their own pathways,” he explained.
Rather than a linear approach to historical studies, where there are distinct beginnings and endings, the way most academic articles and history books are arranged, Dr. Delmont hopes Black Quotidian will encourage people to just jump into it at any point and move backward, forward, or laterally through material, piecing stories together for themselves, and cultivating new perspectives on history.
In order to offer this immersive environment for history students, Dr. Delmont plans to continue building on what he started. The 365 posts that Dr. Delmont and guest contributors posted to Black Quotidian over the course of last year will serve as the foundation of the archive, but he’s taking it a level deeper to explore in essay form some of the themes that emerged out of these posts. Dr. Delmont is particularly looking forward to delving into topics such as women’s sports in the 1930s and ‘40s, and focusing on content from social pages or people featured in individual profiles.
But Dr. Delmont said Black Quotidian also serves another purpose: “As a way to demonstrate the potential for scholars to create a formal digital project that can count as publication for tenure,” he said. “We’re at a weird point in the profession – academics seeking tenure-track positions are encouraged to work on digital projects, but aren’t getting credit for these projects to allow them advance their careers.”
Not only can Black Quotidian provide researchers with a new way to think about publishing in order to advance their academic careers in the digital age, it offers a new way to think about conducting research in the digital age, and showcase the value of primary source materials, such as newspapers, to help us discover the past.
Find out more about ProQuest Historical Newspapers and Black Historical Newspapers.
Learn more about additional resources for Black History, including History Vault: The Black Freedom Struggle in the 20th Century and the NAACP Papers.