I am often intrigued by the responses of people regarding our celebration of what is commonly called Black History Month. It speaks to how much race is still core to who we are as Americans; it also speaks to how fragile we can be on this same subject. Perhaps we simply confuse discussions of race with racist discussions.
There are those who believe that highlighting one race somehow causes more separation and segregation among all races. Can I share my own experience with this thought process?
Decades ago, my 10th grade English teacher, an African-American woman, gave our class an assignment: we had to create an illustrated poetry book, searching out various works that appealed to us and using our artistic skills or our ability to cut images from magazines to fashion an individual work. One of the assignment’s conditions was that we had to include at least five African-American poets. Personally, this activity introduced me to the works of legends such as Langston Hughes and James Weldon Johnson. Others weren’t so open-minded. A few of the students—white students–took issue with being “forced” to research African-American poets, and collectively went to the principal’s office; I suppose they thought they would set the teacher straight. Our principal (who was also white, in case you were wondering) shut them down with one question:
‘If she didn’t make you go and find black poets, would you have searched them out on your own?’
And that, friends, is reality brought to the myth that highlighting African-American history detracts from any unity of races: if you knew more about someone else’s history, would you run away, or might a new level of understanding bring you together?
Then there are other beliefs. I am amazed at the numbers of people, black, white, and otherwise, who know little of African-American history outside of slavery. Consequently, these families make a decision not to teach African-American history at all because slavery is just entirely too horrific. The irony here, of course, is that you will never learn what you make it a point not to know.
Then, there is the more blunt response that, I can only assume, is a reaction to using the term “black,” as if it is somehow denotes exclusivity: “Why isn’t there a white history month?” The response to this is simple: American education, by its design, deems every month as white history month. It is required knowledge; everyone else’s history is an elective. It is why, in the words of former President Gerald Ford, Black History Month is the month to ‘seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history. ‘ He went on to say, ‘ I urge my fellow citizens to join me in tribute to Black History Month and to the message of courage and perseverance it brings to all of us.’
The deeper reason, however, is that American history is all of our history; sometimes, we just show up on the wrong side. When it comes to eras like slavery, Jim Crow, and civil rights, we still are learning white history; whites just show up on the wrong side, just as when Native Americans were being removed from their homelands in the west, our buffalo soldiers showed up on the wrong side.
Perhaps this comment, which I found in my blog’s search engine, was the most intriguing yet:
“What does black history teach us about God?”
I’m so glad you asked. I’ll be back in a couple of days to offer my two cents…