Black history is still American history

(U-WIRE) CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — As we move into March I am forced to once more let out a sigh of perplexity and frustration; yet another Black History Month has passed us by, and I am left feeling bothered and unnerved. Ever since the ninth grade, the observance of Black History Month has been problematic for me. I never could understand how black history could be boxed into this neat time frame when the lives and experiences of black people have been integral to centuries of the American narrative.
When I asked my father about it, he told me that Black History Month is the lesser of two evils. Taking a month to instill pride by educating young black children about black heroes and black contributions to society is better than no month at all. I understand this reasoning, and I applaud the efforts of the black community to (once again) make something with almost nothing. If it weren’t for Black History Month, there would be a lot more people thinking they know American history without knowing the names Harriet Tubman, George Washington Carver or even Martin Luther King Jr.
But one of the biggest problems is that segregating the history of black people into the month of February implies that black history is different from American history. This allows for no more than a qualified recognition of blacks in American history, at best — despite the fact that no history can be more American than the history of America’s slaves and their descendants.
History simply cannot be divided into black and white. There is no major event in the American narrative which was not in some way touched by the race issue. What’s more, whether we like to admit it or not, whites have an intimate role in the black experience, and not just as slave traders and oppressors. I’m saddened by the fact that I didn’t hear of “our” white heroes like Elijah Lovejoy and John Brown who gave up their lives in the struggle against “the Man,” until I got to college. The idea that we can separate our pasts by color only perpetuates the problems we grapple with today.
We might be able to attribute this segregation of history to a necessary cost, arguing, as my father would, that Black History Month is something to work with until society is ready to integrate black history and American history. But we can’t ignore the fact that trying to fit the black experience into the confines of February has trivialized black history. For too many people, black history has become a few famous faces, some choice quotes, a bit of kente cloth and productions showcasing singing and dancing. I realized this in ninth grade, when I helped organize the Black History Month celebration at school. I remember leading the auditorium in the pledge of allegiance, staring out at a sea of faces and wondering what we were really teaching people about black history.
They’d already seen the silhouettes of Martin and Malcolm, they’d heard the quotes, and hell, everyone knows we can sing and dance.
Things have stepped up a bit here at Harvard, but not by much. We have more sophisticated shows of singing and dancing (with food thrown in) and impressive discussions on race issues in America today, but little else. These things are all virtuous, serving to commemorate and celebrate an all-too-often denigrated people, but where is the historical education? As far as I can tell, the extent of it was table cards featuring black intellectuals who are admittedly more obscure than the usual famous faces. I was glad to see these table cards on my dining hall table, and I read each one. But I just can’t help wishing there was something more.
Even within the month, we do a poor job of fulfilling what should be the ultimate goal, educating people about black history. No history can truly be understood without its context. If educating people about black history is not the goal, and the month is really just about commemoration and celebration, then that is wonderful. Meanwhile, however, the black children who desperately need to know their history so that they might find heroes to inspire them, and the white children who need a full understanding of their past to make sense of their privilege in the future, are not finding it in their school curriculum, even in February.
Carine M. Williams’s column originally appeared in Tuesday’s edition of the Harvard Crimson.