February, the shortest month of the year, when rosy hopefulness leads in to the carefree transitions of March and the culmination of spring in April. February, Black History Month. A time where news media, social media, and the general populous take part in discussions (and dissections) of black life, culture, experience, and history. Black History Month is a time when we are encouraged to reflect upon the impact of historical black figures such as Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr. and Frederick Douglass, to learn lists of black inventors and innovators, to celebrate our people and culture. A time where space and visibility for black POC is widespread and acceptable. But as all things that are not Eurocentric, there are arguments against the necessity and merit of an entire month being dedicated to the history of black people.
Well here I am, again, to make a case for myself, and for black people all around. This is the case for Black History Month.
Born of Carter G. Woodson in 1926, Negro History Week (which would end up becoming Black History Month) was intended to shed light on the accomplishments of Black Americans. Woodson was a researcher and historian who wished to bring to the forefront of the nation’s consciousness just how impactful and important black people were, and continued to be in building, innovating within, and supporting the nation. Woodson intended for this week in February to inform the nation of the strength and power of black people, as well as inspire Black Americans to realize the greatness of their people and the greatness of themselves, despite the oppressive system that they continued to exist within.
Clearly, Black History Month was intended to educate and bring visibility to people who have been erased and silenced for thousands of years. As it should. And who could argue that dedicating time to educate the populous on the wonder black achievement could be a bad thing, especially given that America was built by black people. But, regardless of this (or any other factual information), when people of color are the focus of something, there is backlash.
The most common argument against Black History Month, or black-centric anything for that matter—Kwanzaa, BET, NAACP, et al.—is that it is racist. Delegating a time or space to have a focus on a group of marginalized people, specifically black people, is deemed racist or segregatory because associating the color of someone’s skin with their accomplishments just perpetuates racism, obviously. But let’s break down this argument.
Firstly, the idea that associating one’s race with one’s accomplishments is equitable to racist or segregatory practices revolves around the concept of a kind of erasure technique called “color-blindness.” Color blindness, or being color blind, is an ableist term used to describe someone who chooses to “not see race.” Color blindness is a topic that warrants its own full length discourse, but for the present circumstances, the critique will be brief. Color blindness is a concept that can only exist in a post-racial society, a kind of society that cannot exist so long as systematic racism and oppressive power structures exist. Concepts such as color blindness that can only exist in post-racial societies end up feeding into the present problem and perpetuating racism, the very thing it claims to alleviate, by continuing to perpetuate the erasure and silencing of marginalized people. Wanting one’s race to be recognized within the context of their achievements doesn’t mean that their accomplishment is attributed to or centered around their race (or other identities), it just means that every aspect of their identity is acknowledged. Furthermore, by claiming that any part of their identity shouldn’t be recognized, you not only strip them of their identity, you also take away their visibility, one of the most vital things marginalized groups need to have.
The second major problem with the claim that black-centric events are racist is that the claim doesn’t take into account any historical context. Because of colonization, enslavement, and segregation the achievements and contributions of blacks and black americans have gone largely unattributed or unrecognized. Additionally, because systematic racism still is alive and thriving, there is a distinct, unnerving lack of “colored” history being taught (in regards to all marginalized identities). That erasure has impact, and there needs to be some kind of compensation for that. Much more than what is begrudgingly being provided in the two day in-class coverage of the transatlantic slave trade.
But if I was really fighting for equality, there would be a white history month, right? Wrong.
To begin, there is a white history month. Actually there are white history months. Irish, Greek, Scottish, Jewish, French, German and Italian to be specific. Furthermore (and more importantly), in America, history is white history. So often people say that “black history should just be american history” as a reason why Black History Month shouldn’t exist; and they’re right. In fact, Carter G. Woodson, the founder of Black History Month, wished that ultimately there wouldn’t be a need for Black History Month because he hoped that as a result of his original efforts, black history would be integrated into American history. But nearly 100 years later, black history still has not been integrated into American history— and so long as the overwhelming amount of sexist, racist and classist problems stand in our education system, the need for Black History Month (and all celebrations of other identities) will stand.
And let’s not pretend like Black History Month in schools isn’t still framed within a Eurocentric context. Black people are only recognized in spaces where white people exist or within the context of white people. And more often than not, they are painted in the wrong way, or only part of the picture is there: Rosa Parks as a lazy or passive resister, Martin Luther King Jr. as a tone policer, Frederick R. Douglass equating education to permission to have a voice. Additionally, there is no discussion of colonialism, the role of black people outside of slavery, or black radicalism.
So now that you actually know a little bit about Black History Month, go out and take advantage of it. Be educated, educate (or as I like to say, stay woke). And remember Black History Month and Black Lives Matter.