Happy Black History Month

January 28, 2014 § Leave a comment

I’m an historian.  I teach history.  I study history.  I write history.  I even think about it in my spare time.  February is Black History Month.  In theory, I support this.  I support the teaching of Black history.  As well as the history of other groups who have been marginalised, oppressed, and written out of history.  I remain deeply influenced by the New Left of the 1960s, particularly the work of E.P. Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm.  Black history has to be incorporated into the rest of the curriculum, it has to be included in the story at the core.  Black History Month is important to raise awareness, but we need to do more than that if we’re ever going to get anything done.  African American history is central to the American story, and not just through slavery, the Civil War, and Civil Rights.

I was struck nearly stupid by a post on NPR.org today, “What Does ‘Sold Down the River’ Really Mean?”  Seriously.  This is considered to be a newsworthy blog post by the leftist, liberal, listener-supported public radio station.  The comments on the story on Facebook are predictable in many ways.  There are the liberals having pedantic arguments about whether the apocryphal river is the Missouri, Mississippi, or the Niger, whether the provenance of the phrase is American or African.  On the actual post on NPR.org,the liberals are arguing about whether or not slavery still exists today in relation to agricultural workers from Central America.  But back on Facebook, there are also people claiming that this is race-baiting, or “playing the race card.”  Others say that there is no racism in America today. Others say that its racist to even have a Black History Month, because there is no equivalent White History Month.  These are the folks who call Women’s Day sexist because there’s no Men’s Day. And then there’s the one who says that this is all ancient history and belongs “up there on the shelf with the other antiques where it belongs.”

Pointing out the history of slavery and the historic oppression of black people in this country is neither race-baiting nor playing the race card.  Pointing out that racism still exists today is also not race-baiting or playing the race card.  In fact, from my experience, those who make such claims are doing to from a place of racism themselves.  As for the one who said that racism and slavery are ancient history and belong up on the shelf with the other antiques, well, the less said about that, the better.

As for the claim that Black History Month is racist because there’s no White History Month.  Well, it’s not often I will outright say an idea is stupid.  But this is an exception to that rule.  The majority of the history we teach, in primary and secondary schools, in university, is about dead white men.  Still.  In the early 21st century.  There is a reason for this, of course, and that’s because most survey history courses are overviews and, at least when it comes to North America and Europe, it is dead white men who were the kings, presidents, advisers, cardinals, popes, explorers, revolutionaries, politicians, and rebels.  In short, in the United States, the history curriculum is still overwhelmingly about white people, particularly white men. So the suggestion that Black History Month is racist is ludicrous, ridiculous, and downright stupid.

But, it’s stories like this, and the comments made on them, that point out the real need for Black History Month.  We do need to spend some time privileging African American history, if only to draw attention to it.  And then to include it in the rest of the curriculum.   A high school teacher commented on the Facebook post that slavery IS taught in the schools, and to suggest otherwise is wrong and stupid.  Well, yes, it is taught.  And then once we get past the Civil War and Reconstruction, black history isn’t generally deal with again until the Civil Rights era, but then that’s it.  So, black history appears in relation to slavery, Civil War, Reconstruction, and Civil Rights.  In short, when the national story was dominated by issues related to race and African Americans.  When race and African Americans aren’t part of the national story, it’s back to the sidelines.  I don’ think this is good, it doesn’t create an inclusive history, it is an exclusive history.  The same is true of women and other minorities.

This NPR story and the comments to it on Facebook and NPR show that rather than moving towards a post-racial society (hey, remember those dreams in 2008?), we are caught in a stasis, and we need Black History Month now as much as ever.

 

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