What is Black History Month during the war on critical race theory?

OPINION: No matter how hard it is, Black history is necessary because we will never understand America if we do not know Black history.

Black history vs. CRT
(Illustrator: Marlene Marmolejos, @motionmami)

Black History Month 2022 arrives in the middle of a war against Black history that its enemies are winning. White people have been throwing verbal rocks at Black history and enacting laws to silence or erase it and Karening anyone they can by labeling any discussion of Black history as “critical race theory.” 

Nikole Hannah-Jones has been a significant intellectual leader in this battle, adding scholarship and clarity and explaining how this country is a slaveocracy. Her 1619 Project has been a source of controversy for some, but for most of us, it has been a source of pride, perhaps even an intellectual sword we can wield in this battle against reality.

White people are turning Black history into a bogeyman that’s out to snatch up white children’s souls. God forbid they be uncomfortable about something they learn about American history. But this is February, Black history’s moment to shine. This is the month where Black history gets to dress up nice and get onstage and talk about itself, where corporations run ads praising Dr. King. Where allies and “allies” post pictures of Black studies books they’re reading or “reading.”

But what is Black History Month when Black history is under siege and fighting for its life? Black History Month and the war on critical race theory cannot co-exist, just as Black Wall Street and white people could not co-exist. So what is Black History Month in the midst of the war against critical race theory, and what should we do? 

Black history merely means “the accurate history of America, especially the parts that deal with Black people,” but there’s no way to separate Black history from American history. They are the same thing. For example, Black history deals with slavery, but who enslaved them? If slavery involved Black and white Americans, why would it be relegated to Black history? It’s American history. Especially because the impact of slavery flows throughout American history—it’s because of slavery that America became a global economic power, which means slavery impacted everyone and everything, even those who did not enslave people. 

Black History Month is a time to tell the story of Black people and make space for us to celebrate us. But sometimes it gets a little sanitized—Black history is not just nice pictures of Dr. King and Barack Obama. Black history is complex—it’s oppression and resistance, it’s steps forward and back, it’s failure and success. We cannot truly understand Black history without a deep discussion of systemic racism and white privilege or wrestling with how America became a global economic power precisely because of slavery or without dealing with how the legacy of slavery continues to shape us. 

Black history is meant to liberate Black people by helping us understand who we are by knowing where we’ve come from. The war on critical race theory wants to erase Black history entirely. It says thou shalt not speak about race, especially the parts that make white people uncomfortable—the domestic terrorism, the hate crimes, the oppression, the systems that have held Black people back. The war is deeply white supremacist—it cares only about the needs of white people. The war is being fought on behalf of white fragility. They are too weak to be deluged with a discussion of Black history. But how do you erase Black history when there’s a whole month devoted to it?

I think in the eyes of white people, Black History Month should be a nice, quiet procession of people who have politely overcome. It should focus on the good negroes who make us all proud, who didn’t cause a ruckus. It should be Dr. King, not Malcolm X. It should be Cam Newton, not Colin Kaepernick. It should be the disarming smile of Barack Obama, not the fully armed smile of Huey P. Newton. But Black history cannot be authored or shaped by white people. They cannot define what Black history is—if they do, then it’s only propaganda. 

They cannot rob us of the truth of who we are and an understanding of how we’ve gotten to this place. Black America is complex; we are both stories of rags to riches and far too many people still in poverty. We are people who could not have broken out of our environment if we had 100 years and people who succeeded despite everything. You cannot understand the complexity of Black America until you deal with the reality of America and the ways that systems have held us back, even though a few of us have triumphed in spite of them.

I know Black history can make white people uncomfortable, and I do not care, but more to the point, if we’re keeping it real, Black history can make Black people uncomfortable, too. It’s painful, enraging and traumatizing. It’s Emmett Till and the Atlanta child murders and Trayvon Martin and George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. When I took my kids to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in D.C., they cried when they saw the exhibit about the slave trade. I think that was appropriate. 

Black history is X-rated because of the violence. White people love to talk about the cities Black Lives Matter supposedly burned to the ground even though there are zero instances of that and many instances of white mobs rioting and literally burning Black communities to the ground—Tulsa, Rosewood, Atlanta. But no matter how hard it is, we need to know Black history because we will not understand America if we do not know Black history.

Black history is central to the conversation of America, and an honest retelling of American history reveals what this country really is and how far it has veered from its dream of being a nation of liberty and justice for all. A feature of American history is remembering how Black Americans have fought time and again to demand this country be as great as white Americans claim it is. 

I am a product of Black history in that I was an African-American studies major in college, and what I learned in my classes gave me a sense of purpose and direction for my life. It gave me a clear sense that people have fought and died for me to have the life I have. It allowed me to see the shoulders that I stood on and made me feel like I have to do something with my life that honors the battles and the sacrifices and the lives and deaths of the Black people who came before me. I remember a CIA recruiter once coming to campus and thinking, you know, it could be fun to work at the CIA, but I can’t. I’m not a white kid. I have to do something that values the Black people who fought and died so that I could be here in college, calmly choosing a career. I have to do something that gives back to them in some way.

So what should Black History Month in 2022 be? It should be unapologetically Black. We need it to be. We should be loud and proud and call out the insanity of the idea that we can erase history. We should pick up those verbal rocks thrown at Black history and throw them back. I’m tired of always going high every time they go low. 

Black History Month 2022 should be like Nikole Hannah-Jones because she is not merely an intellectual leader; she’s an emotional leader. My sister stays in IDGAF mode. She’s heroically unperturbed by any rebuke. She is unapologetic and unafraid and stands tall in the public square speaking the truth while white people boo her, but she persists because she’s an intellectual warrior. I want Black History Month 2022 to be as bold and smart and as honest and unwavering as Nikole Hannah-Jones. If Black history itself is at war, then she is a model of how to be indestructible.

Touré, theGrio.com

Touré is the host of the podcast “Toure Show” and the podcast docuseries “Who Was Prince?” He is also the author of seven books.

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