By Denise Oliver Velez / Daily Kos
I will never forget my fifth-grade schoolteacher in Brooklyn, New York, giving me an “F” on a report because I stated that Egypt was in Africa. Thankfully my parents went up to the school and visited the principal, and my grade was changed. However, my trust in teachers (other than my parents) was eroded. I’m grateful that they taught me black history at home, because it was not part of the grade school curricula.
As we move into the month of February, which is Black (or African-American) History Month, once again there is a spate of news articles and blog posts about “why we don’t need it anymore,” including idiotic statements from a certain black actress trolling for publicity.
Ninety years have passed since the inception of “Negro History Week.”
The precursor to Black History Month was created in 1926 in the United States, when historian Carter G. Woodson and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History announced the second week of February to be “Negro History Week.” This week was chosen because it coincided with the birthday of Abraham Lincoln on February 12 and of Frederick Douglass on February 14, both of which dates Black communities had celebrated together since the late 19th century.
In our so-called democracy we are accustomed to give the majority what they want rather than educate them to understand what is best for them.
Racism is not good for the majority, or those of us who fall into a category dubbed “minority.” Neither is ignorance.
And we have yet to eradicate the ignorance surrounding black history.
Black History Quiz from Black History Facts (which is one of my favorite websites)
Some of the history about how we moved from Negro History Week to Black History Month isn’t very well known. While millions of Americans are aware of Kent State in relationship to Vietnam war protests and the massacre of students immortalized in Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s Ohio, few probably recognize that it was black students at Kent State who were the impetus for a change in how black history has been treated in the last 40-plus years.
The expansion of Black History Week to Black History Month was first proposed by the leaders of the Black United Students at Kent State University in February 1969. The first celebration of the Black History Month took place at Kent State one year later, in February 1970.
Decades later, Black United Students (B.U.S.) members along with other young black Americans on and off campus are still making black history by responding to police killings in our communities.
Peruse some of the comments over at Debate.org on the question of “Should we celebrate Black History Month?” Not surprisingly, there are more “con” than “pro” comments given the racialized nature of internet discourse. Some of the answers typified by the con remarks are proffered by Janell Ross in her Washington Post piece.
How often have you heard some person express somewhere the notion that white Americans aren’t allowed to name an organization, a school, an event, a place “the white” anything? For these people the tyranny of political correctness makes such a thing impossible. How often have you heard that racial and ethnic minorities are, unfairly, free to do just the opposite, subjecting white Americans to a kind of ceaseless, in-your-face reverse bigotry and themselves to a type of elected segregation each day? How many times have you heard someone say that the very existence and name of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) and any number of historically black colleges, universities and organizations represent a modern-day kind of racism which is bizarrely accepted because the people who benefit or are at the helm are not white? Finally, how many times have you heard someone say some version of this: “Where is/why can’t we have a ‘White History Month?'”
This is harsh, but it must be said. We don’t believe that anyone allowed to use the stove alone is actually that obtuse. This is only the kind of thing that a person can say after first deciding to willfully ignore or embrace half-truths and falsehoods concocted to distract or even displace the well-documented reasons that black organizations and institutions exist. And, you also have to be willing to ignore what they do and who they serve now. Further, to believe that white history, white contributions to the arts or anything else are ever neglected, rejected or omitted wholesale in any setting in the United States requires all of the same.
White Americans are the group with the longest and richest history of race-related violence, racial exclusion enforced by violence and intimidation and — even as of today — allowing all manner of major and essential social structures and services to remain substantially separate and unequal. White Americans have benefited from this system and still do today. Some more than others, to be sure, but, that’s the truth. And, maintaining these distances and benefits typically rank among the goals of those who seek to create exclusively white institutions, organizations and places today. To put this really simply, the NAACP and the KKK are not the same. Black History Month and a white nationalist celebrations are quite different. They don’t do the same things. They don’t have the same goals, and they have not shaped America in the same ways. To pretend that such a thing is even close to true is to tell oneself a mighty set of mind-warping lies. It insults the bravery of the men and women — black and white, Latino, Asian and Native American — who did the work to secure hard-won bits of equality. It ultimately gives those who engage in this line of thinking cover to avoid truths about this country’s racial past and present. But that does not make it accurate.
We cannot ignore the fact that as we celebrate and educate, there are forces working to eradicate our gains. Back in July, the editorial board of the Washington Post issued this opinion:
THIS FALL, Texas schools will teach students that Moses played a bigger role in inspiring the Constitution than slavery did in starting the Civil War. The Lone Star State’s new social studies textbooks, deliberately written to play down slavery’s role in Southern history, do not threaten only Texans — they pose a danger to schoolchildren all over the country.
The Texas board of education adopted a revised social studies curriculum in 2010 after a fierce battle. When it came to social studies standards, conservatives championing causes from a focus on the biblical underpinnings of our legal system to a whitewashed picture of race in the United States won out. The guidelines for teaching Civil War history were particularly concerning: They teach that “sectionalism, states’ rights and slavery” — carefully ordered to stress the first two and shrug off the last — caused the conflict. Come August, the first textbooks catering to the changed curriculum will make their way to Texas classrooms.
It is alarming that 150 years after the Civil War’s end children are learning that slavery was, as one Texas board of education member put it in 2010, “a side issue.” No serious scholar agrees. Every additional issue at play in 1861 was secondary to slavery — not the other way around. By distorting history, Texas tells its students a dishonest and damaging story about the United States that prevents children from understanding the country today. Also troubling, Texas’s standards look likely to affect more than just Texans: The state is the second-largest in the nation, which means books designed for its students may find their way into schools elsewhere, too.
The battle to preserve, disseminate, and educate our students and citizens about the history, ongoing struggles, and accomplishments of our black citizens and other populations of color is not won. And this ongoing fight is linked to efforts to diminish and abolish ethnic studies departments and programs at colleges and universities.
Until we have significantly abolished systemic racism in education, we will continue to need Black History Month and other months which focus on our communities of color.