Race Roundtable: Who is Black History Month Really For?

5 years ago

February is Black History Month. What was started in 1915 as a one-day event to celebrate the progress made by African Americans since the abolishment of slavery has grown to be a month during which the general public was reminded of Black people, notably people like Sojourner Truth or George Washington Carver.

In recent years, Black History Month (as well as any kind of ethnic study) has become a target for the extreme right. In 2010 the Texas Tea Party lobbied to remove Black Historyfrom textbooks. And now the Tennessee Tea Party is demanding that references to slavery be removed from history books, because it "casts the Founding Fathers in a negative light."

Sometimes the truth hurts.

Which brings us to the question...

Who is Black History Month actually for?

Is it for African Americans to pass down their history? Or is it for white people to be reminded of their privilege? As a second generation Asian American, I find black history important in how the experiences of every other ethnic group in the U.S. have been influenced by and compared against the collective trajectory of African Americans.

When talking to BlogHer contributing editors about possible ideas for Black History Month, it quickly became apparent that there’s just too many viewpoints and questions to have just one voice. So we convened a roundtable of BlogHers (and not just black!) to talk it out. Here are some of the highlights:

The James Taylor version of BHM or the Marvin version?

Gena Haskett, Contributing Editor

Gena says that before we can begin to talk about who Black History Month should be for, we need to talk about what Black History Month really is. Has the whole concept become so watered down that it's not even relevant?

I was in the market and I hear James Taylor singing "How Sweet It is To Be Loved by You." I'm struggling to remember something and then I do remember. Marvin Gaye. I was raised on the Marvin Gaye version of the song. The public version Black History Month is kinda like James Taylor singing Marvin.

No disrespect intended to James Taylor. It is just that America loves African American creativity, music, fashions but American can't stand black folks.

It draws from out talent pool and re-interprets our speech, dances and cultural icons while at the same time repeating memes of being lazy, lawless and a drain on the society.

There are conditions of acceptance. Being perfect is one. Having a bunch of money is another. How close can you be mapped to an Anglo scale of beauty will fetch more approval. Now map all of that onto BHM. Something is being lost. Much of it the actual history.

BHM is an opportunity to better educate mainly white people about the truth of race in U.S. history.

Shannon LC Cate, Contributing Editor

As a white teacher/activist/mother of adopted Black children, Shannon feels a responsibility to educate would-be white allies of racial minorities about real Black history.

For me, BHM is a great opportunity to teach about the difference between these two versions--and the fact that there is indeed a difference in the first place.

The history of race in the U.S. is a history of racism. The definition of whiteness in this country (perhaps globally, for that matter) IS white supremacy. Whiteness defined itself over and against Blackness as a way to establish control, to preserve and allot privilege. This seems so glaringly obvious that I almost hesitate to write it out. I think most of us here, know it. But the fact is, most people don't think of it this way, not least because our education system covers it up, distracts from it, "celebrates diversity" instead of teaching it whenever the opportunity to do so arises--even without revising textbooks to omit the word "slavery."

I’ve always been conflicted about Black History Month

Laina Dawes, Contributing Editor

As a Canadian and a black woman adopted by a white family, Laina feels says Black History Month sometimes has become an excuse for a party, rather than an opportunity for substantive learning.

As the years have gone by, I have become more disenfranchised with the month. When I first started writing seriously, BHM was a month where Black writers could actually get published in national magazines and newspapers! Now, I'm not even really thrilled about that, as my mind is focused on other issues. Like surviving.

However, this year I'm appreciating the effort that my friends and acquaintances have put in by posting about Black Canadian and American historical figures and luminaries: it's important for young people to know about those who have passed on and what they have contributed to their society - especially in this time when right-wing politicians have put an effort to spew racial hatred over their resentment of a Black( well biracial, but when the chips are down he's Blackety-Black-Black) American president. It's disheartening, but provides a real view into what this society is, and where, if we have the courage, we need to go and how to fight....which is to better ourselves and our communities. We have to remember that despite what 'they' are saying about us, that we have made a huge impact in North American society.

White people are very comfy in our privilege, so comfy that we don't see it.

Rita Arens, Senior Editor

Rita candidly admits that growing up in an all-white community, she unconsciously absorbed many racist views. But as an adult, she actively works against racism.

Black History Month: It's for everyone, but it really needs to be blown out for white people and particularly white people who don't have black people in their peer groups like I was until I started working for bigger companies, blogging and then consequently moved to my more diverse neighborhood and befriended my neighbors. I'm not an evil racist now and I wasn't then, but I was a benign racist then, and I'm working on my benign racism now. I was raised to be racist and it requires constant vigilance to not let your brain think white is better when it's what you see all around you with the best stuff, the best jobs, the best educations, the most influence in politics. I know I'm still racist because if I see a black man with a hooded sweatshirt up walking toward me on a city street, I tense up. Not so with a white guy. Because the news is always telling me the suspect is a black guy.

I didn't get it until Kelly Wickham asked me if I read People magazine or Ebony. I didn't see how dominant white faces and European beauty is in American culture until I started consciously looking for other kinds of beauty and realized even the nonwhite people on the covers of magazines have very white-looking features. I didn't even think about whether actors cast as real people shared the real person's race and how important it was that they should.

Not keen on making Black History Month palatable to white folks

Gena Haskett

So yes, there might be 3% white folks that might be open to hearing about different forms of inclusion I'm not too hopeful about the other 97%.

I know of people who will and have said to me that things were so much better when they knew their neighbors, when their kids when to the same schools and life was good. What they are really saying is "before integration, before the removal of red-lining, before affirmative action, life was so much better."

No it wasn't. It was that they did not need to be concerned because it did not directly affect them. Inclusion and shared experiences now affect them.

So no, I'm that that keen on making BHM palatable to white folks. Not at all. I am keen on the full dimension of our shared history to be told. A history that is greater than slavery. Understanding slavery is important but it is not the totality of our experiences.

So much to say, so much to learn

Kim Pearson, Contributing Editor

Professor Kim is the chair of African American studies at The College of New Jersey, so listen up!

I wish I could take all of you to an ASALH (Association for the Study of African American Life and History) convention with me. You would all have a ball.

For me, the reason Black History Month (and black history) is about everyone is because we still live with the legacy of the fundamental contradiction of Western democracy - the notion of building a society on the assumption of universal equality, but simultaneously excluding whole categories of people based on class, race and gender. We live with the legacy of that dilemma to this day, as Shannon and Rita have expressed. But we also have the gift of what has been done in response to that circumstance, and ways of seeing the world anew.

in the 60s-70s, we were exposed to what our communities felt it was important to know as African Americans.

Gena Haskett

There were bookstores with historical content, movies, radio stations that talked specifically to our communities.

We were not isolated from mainstream culture. That was impossible. We were not a part of it either. There was an invisible Jim Crow wall in that cit that you learned to navigate.

We had/have black newspapers like the Tribune to tell us what was going on when the "white" newspapers did not cover our community unless there was crime.

This supplement what little we got in school. did not separate us from the dominant culture's influence but I think we had a better buffer on the assault than the current generation.

The public memory is what is being used today to constantly diminish the so-called other; in fact the calls for White History month/acknowledgement are increasing.

History can't be allowed to exist in a vacuum. BHM could be presented to answer the needs of the current generation.

What about you? What do you think about Black History Month?

Race and Ethnicity Section Editor Grace Hwang Lynch blogs at HapaMama and A Year (Almost) Without Shopping.

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