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Monday, February 6, 2012

White History Month

"Why isn't there a white history month?! 
           That's reverse racism!"
Because we already have white history year (decade, centuries...)!

In the United States, white history is the default, assumed perspective. It's what's taught in the classrooms, portrayed in the media, and informs policy making. So we don't need a special time to teach it. It is taught ALL the time.

The unfortunate thing about Black History Month is that some people think the history is just for black folk. The truth is, we are all missing large chunks of historical knowledge, which hinders us as we move forward in our relationships today. As I grow in my racial awareness, it is profoundly embarrassing that the names of major figures in history are completely unknown to me. I am ignorant. I find myself having scramble to catch up and make up for lost time--cramming names and events that should have been taught to me years ago.  It might not be my fault that my high school let me graduate without this knowledge, but now it's on me to rectify it. I am so far behind in my knowledge of music, literature, science. I need a black history month...I just need to celebrate it year 'round to begin to catch up.

History textbook cover:
Columbus, but no Native Americans,
 Kitty Hawk, but no Tuskegee Airmen,
the transcontinental railway,
 but no Chinese immigrant workgangs.
 Just a group of anonymous slaves. 
A lot of the issues are rooted with our education systemTextbooks that don't give the full picture, teachers that gloss over hard truths. To read my 10th grade history textbook, you would think black folks didn't exist in the United States until they suddenly become emancipated from slavery, then they disappeared for a while until angry mobs took to the streets demanding civil rights. There were maybe two famous African-Americans of note, Martin Luther King Jr. and Frederick Douglass, but they were the 'exceptional Negroes'--the ones that stood out from the crowd. My textbook had a small sectioned entitled "white resistance to civil rights" and is followed not long after by a section about the Civil Rights Acts called "The Great Society and the Triumph of Liberalism." (Well, I'm glad that was taken care of!).

The same principles apply to many aspects of our history: Native American achievements and contributions, the USA's paternalist relationship with the Philippines, Japanese internment camps, on and on (see Howard Zinn and James Loewen for more information). Some of it is mentioned in schools, but too often it's "oh yeah and this happened too."

How do we hope for reconciliation if we know so terribly little about those to whom we wish to be reunited?How incredibly disingenuous to say "I stand with you" and then have to ask basic questions about the history of our divide! To love one another, it seems we aught to first know each other! White folks' ignorance is the basis for a lot of pain and misunderstanding in the reconciliation process. Without a foundational knowledge of Al Jolson and minstrel shows, it might be hard to understand why blackface at a party is never ok. White folks are often surprised when black people get angry over 'little things,' but if we understood our history a bit better, we would probably get angry too. 

This picture was not in my history text book
It's important to make a concerted effort to rectify that short coming, and setting aside a devoted month to do so can help. Unfortunately, cordoning off a four weeks to put MLK's picture up everywhere isn't going to cut it. It is a hollow act of token recognition that just allows white folks to pat themselves on the backs for their inclusiveness and then move on with their lives for the rest of the year. Its like we in the majority are deigning to allow this concession of a month at our own benevolent discretion

Put better by Renee at Womanist Musings:
By presenting this as a celebration of 'look how far we have come', we fail to focus on the ways in which race still continues to play a pivotal role in who has access to power in this society. White women are still clutching their purses in the presence of black men, we are still largely portrayed as prostitutes and criminals in the media...

Ah, yes....the media. Another main culprit, alongside our education system. For one month out of the year, advertisers and big companies use February as an excuse to market to black folks (often very awkwardly), then go back to their true colors on March 1. Media bias deserves its own post, but suffice it to say that once again I find myself scrambling and making up for my missing knowledge to get the full picture about the world around me.

So lets educate ourselves a bit, beginning with the history of Black History Month itself:

Carter G. Woodson initiated Negro History Week in 1926 in February to coincide with the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. The idea was to bring black history to the attention of the broader American public. Then, in 1976 the black history was given an entire month--albeit the shortest month of the year.

Continuing our history lesson, how about some identification tasks:
Can you name the 14 people pictured here?
I'll get you started: MLK, Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman...

Name five black figures of
historical significance....not so hard.
Now name ten more...

Do you know who Cathay Williams is? Marian AndersonCrispus Attucks?  Matthew Henson? Ida B. WellsRichard Wright? Marcus Garvey? Who are some significant white allies during the civil rights movement? These shouldn't be obscure names to you, but too often they are.

Can you name the inventor of the light bulb? no problem. What about the carbon filament essential to it? Or the traffic light? hmmm. Telephone? Easy. The blood bank? Not so much. Eyeglasses? yep. Person to patent laser cataract removal? First brain surgeon to perform a hemispherectomy and the first to successfully separate twins conjoined at the head!?!?! Many of us would have starved as children without peanut butter (I am definitely in that category!), but have no idea who to thank for it.
Ok Methodist sisters and brothers...
how about this one? 

The thing is, folks, this isn't simply black history, it's women's history, it's LGBT history, it's military history, it's literary history, it's science history, it's religious history. It's American history.

Asian-American, Native American, and Latino-American histories are also constantly marginalized and ignored (and now they're even criminalized). If these narratives were given as much weight as white history in the classroom, they wouldn't need their own time set aside.

If you don't know some of these most famous of examples I cite here (and I really just graze the surface), do yourself a favor and spend the next 30 minutes looking at the links, reading wikepedia, and educating yourself.  Thirty minutes is a minuscule amount of time to a devote to a subject so neglected, especially compared to the vast history that we are missing out on--but it's a start. You owe it to yourself. 

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  1. When I studied
    for tests, I knew what things I could get away with just glancing at. The black
    history wasn't important--it was just in there because it needed to
    be so people wouldn't get mad. It wasn't the actual important stuff
    and probably wouldn't show up on a test--unless it was one of those random detailed
    questions they throw at you to make sure you did the reading--I hated when they
    did that.  I distinctly remember, two guys (of seven black kids
    in my grade) lamenting over the lopsided history: "I bet they don't even
    know the name Cassius Clay!" And I


    I don't think I
    was very different from most of my white classmates. I didn't feel
    prejudiced--I was 'colorblind.' But I was ignorant to a whole portion of my

  2. yeah....about that....

  3. Very well said! The "brain surgeon" link isn't working for me though.

  4. Thanks! I appreciate your letting me know. Fixed now, I think.

  5. fuck the traffic light

  6. Embarrassingly, I only knew one or two of the folks you mention, and then only because of the Stevie Wonder song "Black Man."

  7. Hey, there are worse ways to learn than Stevie Wonder! Do you know the history of MLK day and the difficulty there was to get it started? Check out Wonder's 'Happy Birthday'":

  8. Huh. I don't know if it makes me feel better or worse that I haven't heard of most of the white people who eclipsed these black people in dominantly told history education seems to have just been terribly lacking across the high school was put on academic emergency the year after I left so it shouldn't be surprising, but still I wish I'd had more information earlier on. The main thing I remember from senior year social studies was that I got into an argument with my teacher when he told us in class one day that everyone in America is a christian. *sigh*

  9. Fair enough. Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, and Benjamin Franklin are often house hold names for most folks in the USA. Good luck studying up!

    1. Yes, I knew those three. Not the North Pole guys, though, and a couple of others. And that doesn't change the main point you're making; there is much to learn. I am particularly interested right now in the stories of Ida Wells and Al Jolson. I will probably spend a few days talking about them with my 4yo. Thanks again for your post.

  10. Kate responded, but Disqus is being weird and not posting it (sorry!!). She said:

    "Yes, I knew those three. Not the North Pole guys, though, and a couple of others. And that doesn't change the main point you're making; there is much to learn. I am particularly interested right now in the stories of Ida Wells and Al Jolson. I will probably spend a few days talking about them with my 4yo. Thanks again for your post."

  11. Now me replying to Kate:

    Ha! Sorry! I missed that I had put that one in. Don't take my response the wrong way...I try not to assume what is "common knowledge" and definetly know some folks that might not have been familiar with Edison, Bell, and Franklin.

    Glad to spark conversations--particulalry with the next generation! Perhaps check out Karen Katz's 'The Colors of Us' with your 4-yr-old:


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