As Black History Month draws to a close, it’s worth asking if it serves its purpose in educating people on black history and if it fosters unity between races.
Black people are a part of the United States as much as white people; in fact, the U.S. could never be what it is today without the contributions of other races and cultural denominations. It’s time we acknowledge that by learning about black contributions all year, not just for one month.
We all know about Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks, but it seems we’ve forgotten their calls for unity and equality, not for equity or racial supremacy of any kind. We seem to have forgotten about Frederick Douglass, seeing as his statue was torn down last summer. As activists claim that black people are naturally oppressed and violently protest in the name of racial justice, they’ve forgotten the tenacity of Harriet Tubman and the pacifism of Sojourner Truth. With the main racial narrative being centered around oppressor (whites) vs. oppressed (black people, along with everyone else, apparently), it’s no surprise we’re still far from the equality that MLK, Jr. once dreamed of.
History Lessons Focus on Suffering, and Don’t Highlight Black Triumphs
The history of how slaves were sold, brutally treated, and dehumanized is important to never forget. However, they didn’t just experience this. They survived, overcame, and persevered through slavery and other trials. Some found success after obtaining their freedom, some became slave owners themselves, and others were forever immortalized in history.
The black Americans that came after them didn’t stay hung up on the horrors inflicted on those from the past. They broke records (Jesse Owens, who proved Hitler wrong about the Aryan race being superior), broke barriers for racial integration (Berry Gordy Jr., who founded Motown Records), and pioneered success for future black musicians (Ella Fitzgerald, who was the first black woman to win a Grammy in 1958). They went on to win the battle for civil rights and helped make the country the freest in the world.
Segregating history lessons sends the message that black history is not the same as American history.
Black history often frames individuals as oppressed, and there were certainly times that they were, from the era of slavery through the civil rights movement in the 1950s and ‘60s. I remember learning extensively about this, and thinking about the bravery of those individuals still moves me to this day.
But I didn’t learn anything about Jesse Owens until I was in middle school and read The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, wherein one of the main characters (despite being a German boy in Nazi Germany) idolizes Owens for breaking track records at the Berlin Olympics. I’d never heard of Motown Records until I looked at Michael Jackson’s discography and checked out his early albums with the Jackson 5; from there I discovered other black artists who were prominent with the label, like Diana Ross.
I learned about the horrors of slavery and the fight for civil rights that moved the country as a child, but those lessons were focused largely on the suffering. In some schools today, the focus is no longer just on the pain of the past, but on placing blame on white students. I never learned in school about how much, in so many ways, black people shaped culture as well. I wasn’t taught how much they influenced culture and became a part of it, making names for themselves, despite racists claiming they were “others,” supposedly equal, but needing to be separate.
While pain is certainly a part of the past, there’s far more to history than just that.
While it may not be intentional, the segregation of history lessons — one month dedicated to black history, while the rest of the year is “everything else” — sends the message that black history is not the same as American history. It perpetuates the idea of black people being “others” with their own history separate from everything else. This is far from the case. Their history is a part of American history, as their suffering in this country shouldn’t be forgotten. And this goes for other races and nationalities as well. I never learned in school about how Japanese-Americans were placed in concentration camps under FDR’s administration, nor about how America’s bloodiest lynching had Italian-Americans as their victims.
Although these two groups suffered, we don’t focus exclusively on the suffering of Europeans or Asians when talking about their history in our country. While pain is certainly a part of the past, there’s far more to history than just that. Why then, when it comes to black history, do we exclusively focus on their suffering, and not equal parts suffering and accomplishments?
The Way We Learn about Black History Creates an Expectation of Behavior between Races
In the current day, the division between races seems to be especially heightened. With race riots happening over the summer of 2020 and celebrities publicly pledging to be anti-racist, it appears the media lauds anything that creates an “us and them” narrative. Instead of seeing each other as American, it’s black, white, or BIPOC for the progressive activist.
Simplistically, we learn about history through the lens of oppressor vs. oppressed, especially when it comes to black history. Even now, we don’t learn about the accomplishments of black Americans and their stories of tenacity, courage, perseverance, and trailblazing.
Simplistically, we learn about black history through the lens of oppressor vs. oppressed.
At best, this is an example of history education not going into detail about anything in particular in order to teach most of everything in one year; at worst, this lays an expectation in students' heads, if they don’t challenge it themselves, and they will begin to see black people as inherently oppressed, needing help, and being unable to get ahead on their own. This is hugely racist and a huge disservice to the black community.
As I said before, there were many black historical icons who made history, with greater odds stacked against them then. While Harriet Tubman was certainly oppressed as a slave, she didn’t spend time wallowing in misery after the promise of freedom from her deceased owner’s will was ripped from her, nor when her brothers were about to be sold into slavery.
One day, she decided to escape with her brothers. When they changed their minds, she kept going and didn’t stop. She wanted freedom for her friends and loved ones, and eventually she went on to help at least 70 slaves. How can the education system today focus primarily on blaming white people, and not highlight the strength of slaves and civil rights fighters? The former does nothing; the latter is inspirational.
The Perpetuated Expectation Creates a Negative Bias for Those Who Don’t Fit That Mold
Black History Month, as I remember it, doesn’t largely focus on teaching students about contemporary black figures. While brands promote black creators, and some mainstream media sources highlight prominent black figures of today, it doesn’t seem like we learn much at all about black individuals who hold counterculture beliefs.
When I first heard about Daryl Davis it was on the Joe Rogan podcast. I recommend listening to the podcast in full, as his story is inspiring, especially in a time where the media and politicians seek to divide us, but in short, he alone deradicalized hundreds of white supremacists and members of the Ku Klux Klan. He hasn’t done this by perpetuating the narrative that whites are oppressors and blacks are inherently oppressed — he did so by educating people and having conversations with them, treating them with respect even when they saw him as less-than for the color of his skin. In spite of this, Antifa protested an “Ending Racism” event he was at, and they called him a white supremacist.
I’d also never heard of Thomas Sowell until I became an adult, and he’s one of the most accomplished contemporary academics. He’s written many thoughtful pieces and advocates for the success of the black community, while neither attacking white people nor perpetuating the idea that racism is systemic. Sowell challenges the current narrative, and in spite of having books on many subjects (including judicial activism and civil rights), he isn’t talked about in the mainstream. While Sowell is neither spotlighted nor attacked, it’s not hard to imagine any prominent black celebrity getting attacked for echoing sentiments similar to Sowell’s.
Some black figures like Candace Owens are blatantly attacked as well, including her supporters, such as Julia Saville, a Virginia high school student. Saville was harassed via a school-wide email because she chose Candace Owens as the subject of her presentation on “Black Trailblazers,” an assignment issued by her school’s black student union. A classmate condemned Saville’s choice, allegedly because Owens is racist. The email read:
“Candace Owens is not someone we should be recognizing today especially during Black History Month when she has done absolutely nothing for the black community…Owens openly tried to degrade the struggles of the black community by telling the general public that America is not a racist country and that everyone who believes that it is is trying to divide America.”
The student who sent the email then called Saville “disrespectful” for choosing Owens as the subject of her presentation. In truth, it seems to me that the student who sent the email is the disrespectful one, as they make serious claims (in an ideal world we should take claims of racism seriously) without elaborating upon how the belief that America isn’t racist is racist. This is a difference of opinion, and instead of engaging in discussion, Owens is labeled a racist, and Seville is deemed disrespectful, with her school taking no action regarding the situation.
To designate black history to one month discourages learning more about black history than just slavery and the civil rights movement. The way slavery and civil rights are talked about focuses more on the suffering of blacks, with little to no attention towards the successes and victories they had as individuals, even when all odds were against them. This makes it easy for people to adopt at least one of these mindsets: blacks are oppressed and can’t get ahead without the aid of their oppressors, and/or individual whites in this day and age are still to blame for the remnants of slavery, Jim Crow, and segregation.
Black history is a part of American history. It’s time we learned about their contributions along with the rest of American history. When we learn about the American Revolution, we should talk about the black contributions then. When we learn about how culture evolved with music and new forms of art, we should talk about contributions made by black Americans that inspired others. After all, it was Elvis Presley who said “rock and roll music is basically gospel or rhythm and blues.”
There’s no black history, no white history, when you’re talking about the history of the U.S. because these groups, and more, built this country together. It’s time we integrated learning about black history — and for that matter Latino, Asian, and others — into the regular curriculum.