White History Month
Yep, its that time of year when every black history hashtag will be met with cries of "foul!" and retaliatory questions like, "Why don't we have a white history month?" Every year there is a backlash, whether large or small from white folks who feel that this dedication to black history falls into the "reverse discrimination" and "special treatment" category. Contrary to popular belief, not all black folks feel the same way about black history month either. There are some who charge that having a month dedicated to black history perpetuates the idea that our history is somehow separate from America's history.
To both I respectfully say, "Phooey".
I also sadly say, "Phooey".
I wish there was no need to dedicate a special month to recounting black history. I wish there was no need for "special treatment" throughout the month of February. I wish black history (and asian histories and first nation histories and southern american histories) were told as commonly as white eurocentric history. I wish that hearing about black men and women inventors, leaders, heroes, struggles, and victories were embedded in our language, our history books, our media, our schools. I wish that sharing black history was so common, I couldn't tell it was black history month by looking at PBS's line up for the month. (Grateful though I am for the line up). How wonderful it would be to not need a Black History Month.
But we are not there yet.
In school I had to learn about all the presidents of the United States, long before there was a black one. I had to learn about the generals of the civil war, but had no idea that black Americans were fighting in the war, too. There were three paragraphs dedicated to black history in my elementary education. 1. Slavery, in which I had to learn the name of Eli Whitney and his cotton gin; heaven forbid I learn the name of just one slave. 2. Civil Rights in which I learned about the "good negro" Martin and the "bad negro" Malcolm. 3. Oh, wait. There was no third paragraph. My bad. I had to take every chance I could to sneak a black face into my own education. Book report due- I choose Harriet Tubman. Essay to write- I'll focus on women in the Civil Rights Movement. I have to read a book over the summer- How about Invisible Man. Like many black Americans, I created my own education with the help of parents, the church, and my beloved books.
But this isn't where things ended. I was required to take a course on European History, but no courses were offered about anyone else's history. I had to learn church history, but the church in Africa was missing from the story. Far beyond curriculum woes, there was an absence of understanding. Ice breakers that started with "Where is your family from?" ripped a hole through the hearts of every African American in the room. Classmates answer- French and English or Irish and Greek. Some answer Chile or Mexico. And others Korea or Japan. As the responses snake their way around the room, some declaring their responses boldly with pride, others are unsure and timid. But soon comes the group who wish they knew. Wish there was a response. Wish a DNA test wouldn't be necessary to be any more specific than… Africa.
And so too the analogies that made no sense to me- skiing and sailing and surfing. Sitting in class trying to decipher the analogy that was supposed to make another concept clearer was (is) frustrating. I don't get perms, I get relaxers. I don't need to wash my hair once a day, little health book, but thanks for the suggestion.
And how I wish it ended in the classroom. How I wish that with adulthood came a sudden realization that black history is celebrated everywhere except the classroom. But when I step out into the world, whiteness is everywhere. Not just white people, but whiteness. Its in the art of doctors, dentists, practices, hotels, restaurants. Smiling faces of white folks, abstract art painted by white hands, some of it quite beautiful but rarely reflective of the diversity that is America. Whiteness is celebrated on magazine covers, billboards, commercials and awards shows. Whiteness is the default in movies and television. (I will never understand how shows set in any major city can consist of an all white cast.) Whiteness is the default in Christian conferences and symposiums. We all have to think really hard to come up with faces of color that meet the "standards" of planners. Whiteness is clearly valued in Christian bookstores and Christian movies and Christian fiction and certainly theology. Whiteness is celebrated everywhere.
And so I ask for a month. One month. 4 weeks. To watch faces that look like me on PBS. To hear stories that sound like mine on NPR. To learn something new about an inventor, creator, speaker, teacher that history would otherwise forget, if not for black history month. I choose to retell the stories of my own family, my ancestors who survived. I choose to celebrate Black History Month, and will continue to do so until a special month is no longer necessary. I reserve the right to determine for myself if/when that will be… but its not today. So happy black history month!