Black History Month is a refreshingly festive time of the year for most of us. Our national choice to give reverence to the contributions of African-Americans is worthy of celebration. If grades were given for effort, we would earn at least a B+ for our joint commitment to allocating a special time to observe and respect African-American history.
But effort is not always enough. Good intentions are a necessary, though not sufficient requirement for us to win the fight for racial equality in America. So, given that our nation has convinced itself that Black History Month should be celebrated, we must now begin to understand how Black History Month might be celebrated in order to be most effective.
My first thought: Why is slavery never really on the table for serious discussion during Black History Month? We are consistently told to remember the Holocaust of Nazi Germany, but for some reason, any meaningful conversation about slavery tends to be reduced to quick mentions of Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass and (of course) Abraham Lincoln. Perhaps the reason we are so quick to remember the Jewish Holocaust but want to forget the African-American holocaust is because the latter is simply too close to home. It’s easy to vilify Adolf Hitler for killing Jews, but not good business to do the same to Thomas Jefferson for his ownership of slaves. Perhaps instead of Black History Month, we should consider “Black Honesty Month” and actually talk about what really happened during slavery.
Second thought: Why does the black history conversation have to start with slavery anyway? Were there no black people in existence before the 17th century? After casually mentioning the arrival of slaves to America, we then rattle off a list of standard achievements: “A black man invented this,” or “John Q. Blackman was the first to accomplish that.” All the while, there is little or no acknowledgment of the great civilizations of Africa to match the incessant drilling of Greek and Roman history into the heads of our kids.
While I am certainly proud of African-Americans who’ve led the way with marvelous inventions and achievements, we must be careful about how our presentation of the message affects the self-esteem of black children. By starting our history as “those people who were eventually freed from slavery by a white man (Lincoln),” we are reminding our kids that the primary quest for black people is to achieve equality with whites. White achievement becomes the ceiling of our greatness, which only serves to guarantee our second-class citizenship.
Third thought: Does a celebration of Black History Month negate the need for more productive conversations about modern day structural inequality? We tend to talk about the history of race in America as if the past is completely disconnected from the present. We discuss how “they used to treat black people back then” without realizing that “they” created the foundation of the society in which we live. Without meaningful discussions of present day manifestations of structural racism, including the education, prison and economic systems, we have forfeited our ability to discuss the past in a constructive way.
Fourth thought: Given that most Americans are woefully uneducated on African-American history, it is clear that allocating one month to the topic is not satisfactory. Why not allow all American children to receive a more holistic and integrated historical education that includes African Americans? By relegating black historical education to one month out of the year, have we created a “Chronological reservation,” a space of time that is owned by blacks, but keeps blackness trapped within its borders? Are black history courses mandatory at most universities? Are children in public school being taught a sufficient amount of black history? Perhaps creating a generation of children who are better informed on the history of race relations might help our nation avoid producing the next Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity. Analyzing the present without understanding the past will almost always lead us to incorrect conclusions. The problem is that most of us don’t know enough about the past to put the present into its proper context.
I enjoy the celebration of Black History Month, and our nation has made a relatively sincere effort to show respect for African-American achievement. But there is certainly more to be desired, and we can only improve our understanding of black history if we consciously acknowledge that there is more for us to learn. Black history is not a 300-year montage of inventions, laws and liberations. It is every bit as complex as the history of any other group of people, and the complexity should be recognized.