First and foremost, Happy Black History Month!
I’ve been seeing this phrase a lot, on just about every Black History oriented post, on t-shirts and other merchandise, and just in general conversation. We say this phrase so much every single year and yet, it feels like most of our education of Black people and their contributions to society still only take place in February. It takes me back to my time in middle and high school, when every year in the curriculum there would usually be only one (if even that) Black author in my English class curriculum. I wasn’t even introduced to my favorite author (Toni Morrison) until my senior year of high school; before then, I had never even heard of her work. It always felt like when it came to the education in Black History Month, we were always stuck ‘learning’ about the same three historic figures over and over again. It’s sad to admit, but a great chunk of my education in Black literature or Black history as a whole took place when I was in college. And that was only because I took classes specifically about those subjects. Black History is American history, but why do we try to jam pack all of the education in 28 days instead of 365?
The History of Black History Month
We often hear jokes about Black History Month taking place during the shortest month of the year, but it actually used to be shorter. It started out as “Negro History Week”, coined by Carter G. Woodson of the
Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) in 1926. Negro History Week took place in February to coincide with the birth month of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. It wouldn’t be until 1976 that the celebration (eventually ‘Black’ History Week) would become one month long.
The response to Woodson’s Negro History Week was overwhelming, with teachers in need of materials to instruct their students, Black history clubs being created, and the progressive white community wanting to support the efforts. Woodson, however, was not looking for Negro History Week to last forever. Instead, he urged schools to use Negro History Week to demonstrate what students could be learning throughout the year. The intention was to motivate the Black community to learn about their history and culture on a daily basis, for the history was far too important to the world for it all to be crammed into such a small time frame.
Woodson was completely right about that; it’s hard enough to obtain knowledge about Black History in a month, let alone a single week. Even now as Black History Month takes place, I’m constantly learning something new. Some of these inventors, authors, artists, musicians, etc. would be great for little Black boys and girls to know about in their early years while they’re still cultivating their identities and their dreams. I’ve wanted to be a writer literally sense I was eight years old, but I can only imagine what motivation would have ran through me had I known about all the Black authors I know now (though Mildred D. Taylor did provide me with my favorite middle school reads).
Black History is For Everyone (Yes, Everyone!)
Woodson and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History did hope for Black people (children especially) to be encouraged and inspired by the history of their people. However, they also wanted Negro History Week to eventually expand into Negro History Year. In other words, it was always their intention to have the celebration grow into American culture as a standard for learning. We wouldn’t reserve just one week or one month out of the year to learn and celebrate the history, it would need to be implemented in the curriculum as a whole so that there would be no call for separation. It would just be, you know….history.
I’m reminded of a passage from Dr. Beverley Daniel Tatum’s Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?. Tatum was giving an example of a young woman preparing to be a high school English teacher. The teacher was frustrated at the fact that she had never learned about any Black authors in any of her English courses growing up, but now was expected to teach about them to her future students. In the class, students wrote about the discussion in response journals and a disgruntled White male student protested “It’s not my fault that Blacks don’t write books”. As Tatum explains more in the passage, it’s highly unlikely that a teacher or parent literally told the student that ‘Blacks don’t write books’. But people will remain ignorant to things that they are not exposed to. Because the White male student was never exposed to Black authors, he instinctively came to his own conclusion that “Oh, I guess Black people just don’t write books”.
To draw from a more personal experience, there was an instance in which a few friends and I were having a conversation and the topic of different colleges came up. I was discussing how prior to picking George Mason University, I had contemplated whether or not I was interested in attending other schools such as Howard University or Virginia Union University. One of the friends had not heard of those schools and I just told her: “They’re HBCUs. One is in Richmond and the other is in D.C.” Her response:
“What’s an HBCU?”
“Oh…it stands for Historically Black College or University”
“So like…only Black people go there?”
And that’s when I had made the realization that the friend didn’t just not know the acronym, she didn’t really know what a Historically Black College/University was. I spent the next few minutes explaining to her that these were schools established before the implementation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act to predominantly serve the African American community. We were about 19 or 20 years old at the time of this conversation.
What this friend and the student that is mentioned in Tatum’s book have in common is that they both lacked exposure. Should we be frustrated or angry about this? Probably, but I wouldn’t necessarily put those feelings towards them rather than the education system and how their overall environment failed them.
The old phrase holds true: People don’t know what they don’t know. It is inevitable that we will never be truly fully aware of the gaps in our own knowledge. But what would have helped my friend save face and what would have helped that White student seem less insensitive is if at some point these types of things were implemented in the common American public education system.
Yes, in college there is more control given to us about which history courses which literature courses, film courses, etc that we are taking. But if the subjects aren’t brought to our attention at some point during our development, how would we know to seek them out?
But more important than that, we can’t ignore this old phrase:
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”
There are variations to this quote, such as “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it”. However you want to phrase it, they both come to about the same meaning: If you don’t keep in mind the mistakes from your past, and if you do not learn from those mistakes, you are likely to repeat the same mistakes over again. It’s great advice when it comes to school, life, relationships, but on a larger scale we can apply it to history as well. It is this type of philosophy that makes Holocaust Education and the Nazi era a mandatory curriculum in German schools.
In a general sense, the reason for this is because Germans feel that they have the responsibility not to forget about it and to do what they can to ensure something so disastrous never happens again. The students are taught about the bad, the ugly, and sometimes the horrifying nature of the Nazi past.
But then we shift our gears over to the American education system, and how the subject of Native Americans, slavery, and discrimination are taught in schools. This article discusses a study regarding how students are presented with the subject of slavery; what students are taught about slavery is “fragmentary, without context, and worst of all, sentimentalized or sanitized”.
According to this study, there are several states that lack what they deem as the 10 Key Concepts of Slavery in their school curriculum. Without receiving the proper background and context of America’s roots, students are likely to lack an understanding of how slavery’s legacy reverberates throughout public policy today. Massachusetts U.S. History teacher Jackie Katz expresses her concern:
“Students who are struggling to understand Black Lives Matter…can’t fully understand it or invest in it without learning about slavery. Students have a lot invested in modern narratives about the America Dream.”
Now, do I truly believe that America will eventually revert all the way back to it was before? Not really. But in order for us to understand where the nation is now, we must first have an understanding of where it used to be. Progress has most definitely taken place in significant ways, but if we keep allowing future generations to remain ignorant about their own country’s true past we will only continue to take some steps backwards.
This year, the Civil Rights Act of 1964; the law that ended segregation in public places and banned employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin will be 55 years old. My dad will be 56 in December.
This year, the Voting Rights Act of 1965; the law aimed to overcome state and local levels of discrimination towards Black Americans exercising their right to vote, turns 54 years old. And so does my mom.
No matter how much people want to bask in how ‘far we have come’ and hide under the idea that ‘things aren’t as bad as they used to be’ we need to remember that it wasn’t that long ago that some of our friendships, marriages, and work relationships would have been extremely difficult if not completely impossible to maintain sixty years ago. We don’t remember these things for the sake holding bitterness or resentment in our hearts. Rather, we remember America’s past (the good, the bad, and the ugly) so that we can always strive to have a better future.
To learn about all of the contributions Black people have made to society in one month is an impossible task. It is all the more reason to take initiative for ourselves (the collective ‘we’, as in not just other Black people). Not only for ourselves, but also seeing how we actually can influence our schools to include more Black history in their curriculum. The thing that made the book and film Hidden Figures such a hit is that it was an amazing story that somehow we never had the opportunity to learn about before. But that story is just one of many that include Black people taking center stage, breaking through seemingly impenetrable barriers.
I hope that we can all keep learning about Black History (and the Black Present) this month, next month, and so on.
Some people get rubbed the wrong way when I refer to myself as ‘Black’ and not ‘American’. It’s pretty obvious that I’m both (seeing that American is a nationality and not a race) but just so we’re crystal clear on it: I’m happy to be both.
Your Friendly Neighborhood Awkward Black Penguin,