On Black History Month

February 18, 2015 § 6 Comments

It is Black History Month.  Specialized history months exist for a reason.  They exist because black people, indigenous people, immigrants, LGBT people, women, etc., all get written out of history.  Take, for example, a typical US History survey course.  Usually US History survey courses at the college level are split into two parts, the first covers the period to Reconstruction, usually with the break coming in 1877; the second part goes from then to today.  In the entire broad expanse of American history, nearly every single textbook I have ever reviewed with an eye towards using reflects a triumphalist narrative of progress.  Certainly, some focus more on the people than the politics and wars, others focus on culture.  Some have a narrative centring around the American fascination with freedom and liberty.

But, still, the narrative is dominated by white men.  Indigenous peoples are the stars of the period before colonization, but that’s usually no more than a chapter.  Then they share centre-stage with the colonists.  Then they disappear from the narrative until the Trail of Tears in the 1830s, and then make a cameo during the story of Western expansion.  Women are almost entirely invisible from the main narrative; women, especially, get shunted into little featurettes, usually at the end of the chapters.  Possible exceptions are Seneca Falls in 1848, the 19th Amendment (sometimes), the Second World War, and Second Wave feminism to the failure of the Equal Rights Amendment in 1982.  As for African Americans, they feature, sort of, in the story of slavery.  But even then, the textbooks tend to represent slavery from the Euro-American perspective: why slave owners thought slavery just, why Northern abolitionists sought to end slavery.  Rarely do we get actual glimpses of the slaves themselves.  Then, after a brief light of Reconstruction, African Americans disappear until the Civil Rights Era of the 1950s and 60s.  And that’s it.  Thus, there is a need to focus on the history of a minority group, to focus on the contributions of that group, whether singly or collectively, to history.  Hence, Black History Month.

The very existence of Black History Month, however, is a result of racism.  The weight of history can be felt every single day, whether individually or collectively.  We feel our own histories, but we also feel the weight of societal history on us every day.  Where we are and what we have is in part a response to history.  As a middle-class, white, heterosexual man, I have privilege, all of which comes from history and the way in which society has been moulded by it.  Men benefit greatly from patriarchy, but not all men benefit in the same way from patriarchy.  For some men, their access to patriarchal privilege is modified by race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and class.

I got into a Twitter argument today over George Zimmerman and his murder of Trayvon Martin three years ago (Martin would have turned 20 next Thursday, 26 February).  The content of the argument doesn’t matter so much as what the argument represents.  Trayvon Martin was suspect to Zimmerman because Martin was black.  He aroused the neighbourhood watch captain’s suspicions for “walking while black,” a pretty common occurrence for black men and women in the United States.

Racism is very real.  And it is historic.  It doesn’t have to come with name calling and threats of violence.  It comes in more peaceable ways, too.  It is subtle, it is silent.  But it’s still very real.  Racism against black people has a long, long history in the United States.  But this was inherited from the British.  The British, and other European nations, were the ones who thought it acceptable to enslave Africans and sell them at auction for profit.  British cities such as Bristol and Liverpool became rich off the slave trade.  In the United States, though, racialized slavery reach its apogee.  And this history still weighs down American society 150 years after the Civil War ended.

Why?  Eric Foner argues that Reconstruction was an “unfinished” revolution.  I would suggest it was a failed revolution.  Either way, as Foner rightly notes, Reconstruction failed because African Americans were left free, but impoverished, as the racist mindset that lay behind slavery sill existed.  And let me remind you that many, if not most, northern abolitionists were just as deeply racist as southern slave owners.  Where they differed is that the abolitionists thought it immoral for someone to own another person.  The Civil Rights Era didn’t happen until a century after the Civil War.  And today, we live in an era of  backlash against the Civl Rights Era.

All of this, though, is due to the weight of history.  On this continent, racism pre-dates the founding of Canada, the United States, and Mexico.  In the United States, it dates back to the founding of Jamestown in 1608 and the Pilgrims reaching Plymouth Rock twelve years later.  The very idea of British superiority over black Africans underpinned the colonial project here, as settlers had the same ideas of their own superiority over the indigenous populations.  Thus it is perhaps no surprise that racism is so deeply ingrained in society.  And this is not a uniquely American problem.  Look at Canada, Britain, Ireland, France, Germany, Russia, Brazil, the Netherlands, etc.

For those of us who have spent their lives fighting against racism (and various other forms of oppression), we are fighting back against the cumulative weight of history; we are trying to push a massive weight off us.  And until we do, we need to call out racism, but we also need to understand the reason for Black History Month this month.  And Women’s History Month next month. And Native Americans’ History month in November.

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