As Black History Month comes to a close, I want to address a sentiment that is echoed around the nation every February, without fail: ”Why is there no White History Month?”¯
The Twitter-dome hashtags it, children repeat it, and grown adults honestly wonder when their heritage will be up for celebration. “If I say I’m proud to be white, I’m a racist,”¯ says a blonde man while rolling his eyes. And there is truth to this, but that might be because “white” isn’t a culture, as much as a social identifier.
When it comes to celebrating culture, Americans, both black and white, do it with aplomb. I’ve heard plenty of proud Irish-Americans boast of their heritage without reproach, plenty of Southerners who celebrate traditional foods and social graces, and don’t even get me started on Italian-American pride. “I’m a good old fashioned American mutt,”¯ one woman offers, meanwhile nobody bats an eye. Lord knows had we not destroyed the cultural roots of so many black Americans, it’s likely we’d see a similar variation of banter on the subject as well.
But where’s the White History Month? Okay, let’s start with the basics: plenty of “history months” already exist to celebrate primarily white cultures. March is Irish-American History Month; April is Confederate History Month; May is Jewish-American History Month; and October is both Italian History Month and Polish-American History Month. So in all reality, there are quite a few history months that fall under the umbrella term of “white.”
However, this reaction also serves to highlight how out of touch many of us are with the spectrum of black history. These days, while we learn far more about leaders like Fredrick Douglass and those involved in the civil rights movement, there is still a heavy leaning on Euro-centric models in science, literature and history. We all read Shakespeare but why not August Wilson? We learn about the Ottoman Empire and the rise and fall of the Nazis, but who here knows about the Belgian concentration camps in the Congo or the history of the Asante Kingdom in West Africa? We learn about Einstein, but why not David Blackwell who worked right alongside him? There is far more to black American history than slavery and civil rights, and failing to illuminate this teaches students of all colors that black achievements are not worth noting.
In Toronto, an experiment with Africentric Alternative School was introduced to help mend high dropout rates among black Canadians and increase test scores. While some called this an “experiment in segregation,” others pointed out that Chinese schools, Jewish Schools, Islamic Schools, French Schools and Portuguese Schools had all existed in Canada for some time, with little uproar from local communities.
So how did these Africentric schools do? Well, after three years, the test results came in. Not only had scores in reading, writing and math improved, but they outranked all provincial schools with scores 10-20 percent above the local average. Such facts and figures help cement the link between historical pride and academic success.
Some might wonder if blending Africentric studies with current curriculums might negate the need for black history month. While there is a need to invoke more black American history into current curriculums, removing Black History Month speaks less to our current inclusion, and far more to our desire to erase national histories that make us, well, uncomfortable
Black history month is more than just a time when we study Harriet Tubman, the Underground Railway, the Tuskegee Pilots, the 54th Civil War regiment, and the Atlantic Slave Trade. It is when we, as a nation, take culpability for the inequities laid upon black Americans. Not just from 400 years ago, not from 200 years ago, but for those very much alive today that suffered segregation.
Black American lives have been informed by such inequalities, and they deserve to have this history honored, rather than erased. And this doesn’t mean all white people should feel bad. Personally feeling bad about what happened is fine, but actually contributes nothing. However, simply recognizing that history is different for us all helps us move forward with a clear picture of where we have been. And next month, when we celebrate the contributions of Irish-Americans and women (because it’s also Women’s History Month), let’s again remember to learn about their hardships without defensive self promotion at the forefront of our minds.
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