Every February, social media becomes awash with the same old controversy around Black History Month. A range of racist attitudes are expressed through online forums. Perhaps the most significant was a YouTube video made by a young white woman stating that she “doesn’t believe” in Black History Month and refuses to celebrate it because we live in a post-racial society. Other sentiments include the perceived double standard in the lack of an official White History Month. The sole purpose of Black History Month is neither to indicate racism’s continued prevalence nor to serve as restitution for the heinous crimes committed against black people. Black History Month is important because of the failure of many American classrooms to teach the narratives of marginalized groups as told by the marginalized themselves.
It is not that students are unaware of the existence of slavery or the Civil Rights Movement, but that these events are told through the perspective of the oppressor, or white sympathizer. Yes, we can’t expect scholars to find a plethora of firsthand accounts from slaves because many were illiterate. I am still not pleased by the fact that three of the four books I read in high school that discussed the plight of black people in the U.S. were “Uncle Tom’s Cabin, “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Though these books are highly relevant and reveal much about the time period in which they were written, I found Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God” to be the most compelling, as it was written by a woman with firsthand experience. Her novel is one of the works of black literature incorporated into the mainstream American literary canon.
It is inappropriate that black history is primarily told by white authors. We owe our students, regardless of their race, a more complex vision of their nation’s past. It is not that white people are unable to contribute to this conversation. Some may interpret this article itself as part of the problem. I’m a white writer commenting on Black History Month. What gives me a right to take part in the conversation? My argument isn’t merely a defense of Black History Month, but a discussion of its importance for American students of all races.
American textbooks simplify the motivations of key figures, choosing to portray these figures as heroes instead of men and women socialized in their respective epochs. For example, Abraham Lincoln is painted as a patriarchal, benevolent “freer of slaves.” Although it is true that he worked to pass the Emancipation Proclamation, this law still left those in the border states temporarily enslaved, and it did not do anything to provide for the incorporation of freedmen into society. He also made the decision to run on the ticket with Andrew Johnson, a Southern Democrat who held deep-seated hatred for the black race and vetoed radical Republican attempts to build protective institutions for freedmen.
A hundred years passed between the passage of the Emancipation Proclamation and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. A teacher might place “Jim Crow laws” and “sharecropper” as vocabulary words on a quiz, but barely touch upon nearly 100 years of marginalization and suffering. These gaps in understanding are dangerous. Isn’t it curious that a discussion of black history seems to peter out significantly after the Civil Rights Movement? In omitting these facts or choosing not to focus on them, American textbooks push a nationalist agenda upon the reader. It’s as if to say, “Yes, slavery existed in America, and then, legal discrimination, but the good guys — Lincoln, JFK — came to the rescue, and everything was hunky-dory.” If we need a separate Black History Month because we fail to tell black stories the other 11 months of the year, so be it.