Black History Month

This is a guest-post by Renee from Womanist Musings.

I was reminded via e-mail that February is black history month.  A regular reader of my blog was astonished to find that I had not done the obligatory “celebration post” and instead posted what they deemed nonsense.  Apparently this is a glaring omission on a blog that regularly deals with race.

The omission was quite purposeful on my part.  At no time throughout the month will you find a post especially dedicated to the celebration of Black History month.  I will continue to discuss race and the ways in which it intersects with all of the isms however, celebrating a false feel good month is not my idea of treating Blacks as equals in society.

Black History month gives people an excuse to claim tolerance and understanding, without doing any real work to change the ways in which the races interact.  For a brief 28 days of the 365 that make up a year, people will briefly acknowledge the contributions of blacks and then return to privileging whiteness in every single social institution.  Even while we are in the middle of said “celebration”, whites continue to complain about how racist Black History month is.  “Imagine if you had a white month”, is what gets repeated continuously during the month of February, while the fact that every month, is white history month gets ignored.

The ironic part about the above statement is that Black History month is indeed racist, but not because there is no equivalent white history month.  It is racist because it turns blackness into a mockery.  If Black History and accomplishments were truly appreciated we would not need a special month to celebrate them; it would be integrated into our lives in the natural course of events.  Black history month continues to exist because of racism.

In the comment section Karack states,

If every month were black history month, I would know the nations of the slaves the way I know the nations of the colonizers. If every month were black history month, I would know the faiths of Africa the way I know the faiths of Europe.

Black history month is a cookie, it is an addendum at the end of the history books. Until black history–and brown history, and yellow history, and red history– is as deeply woven into our consciousness and social fabric as white history, this month will be nothing but a token given to shut the loud black up.

Though initiated by the African Diaspora population, Black History month has become nothing more than a small cookie thrown at Blacks in an attempt to placate our desire for equal representation. Liberals wax poetically about how important our contributions have been to western society without ever critically engaging about the ways in which racism continues or the fact that whiteness is every bit as privileged as it always has been.

This year many point to the election of Barack Obama as an added reason to celebrate.  While the election of Barack is historic, it does not change the daily lived experience of blacks across North America.  Each generation we have seen exceptional Blacks break through the glass ceiling however, the masses continue to suffer daily from racism, and class exploitation.

It is further ironic that once again we are pointing to the achievements of a black male to justify “our celebration”. The erasure of the efforts of black women in the cause of liberation and justice has been commonplace in our discussions of black history. Most people when asked about the black civil rights movement of the 60’s will speak about the work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Reverend Abernathy, or perhaps even Malcolm X, but few will think about the women “behind the movement” that worked tirelessly to ensure a better future for their children. In our “celebrations” blackness readily becomes conflated with masculinity thus once again propping up the black male patriarchy, while relegating the work of black women to secondary status and thereby reducing its importance.

I don’t feel that doing the obligatory post daily for 28 days will change anything; it will only highlight the fact that we remain a completely divided society without offering any concrete conclusions.  I further refuse to provide an education in black history to those who expect that blackness, or anti-racism should be spoon fed to them on their timetable.  Black History month is not controlled by the very peoples of the African Diaspora that it claims to celebrate.

My blog is about engaging in conversations and I believe that is the best approach to breaking down the walls that continue to divide us from one another.  Pretending for one month out of twelve that there is a connection or that we somehow value contributions when we don’t, does not get us anywhere.  So, to the next person who wants to wish me happy black history month, how about you skip it and instead spend the rest of the year working to dismantle privilege and deal with race critically.

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10 comments for “Black History Month

  1. February 4, 2009 at 12:27 pm

    Yeah, and as Tom Lehrer finished his song National Brotherhood Week:

    “It’s only for a week, so have no fear.
    Be grateful that it doesn’t last all year!”

    Pointing to the fact that, though people might treat a chosen group or a topic respectively and attentively for a day/week/month they’ll go right back to the hating they do for the rest of the year once it’s over.

    A day/week/month of awareness and/or observation won’t do much good when 11 out of 12 months or more time is spent in status quo. What is needed is constant awareness and the constant prodding that activists, bloggers etc stand for.

  2. shah8
    February 4, 2009 at 1:32 pm

    Black History Month annoys me too. Some people really like to believe that the US was always a white country.

    Common history is white, the self-assigned color of the victors of history, but then, well, it isn’t even the half of it. Gotta go well out of your way into historical ghettos to get most of it.

  3. NancyP
    February 4, 2009 at 9:42 pm

    On the other hand, BHM is not a bad way to highlight resources for adult learning. Classic general reading lists (top 10 classic fiction, top 10 essay collections, top 10 classic histories and biographies/autobiographies, top 10 poems, top 10 plays every educated American should read), specialized reading lists, “best of the last year” lists (not necessary to make these lists Jan. 1 to Dec. 31), best new blogs, etc. BHM may provide some useful opportunities to run series, eg, the local public library system is running several documentaries on black filmmakers this month. BHM is a way to promote material that can be used for the rest of the year. Plus, I have made it my practice to read at least one solid history in February, which means that I start looking at what is available and what I have missed.

    I agree that black, women’s, labor, immigrants’, etc history should be integrated into formal curricula, and in the best of all possible worlds this would occur. Until then, adults (and children) can use some prodding and some guidance for independent learning.

    (am I a book review addict, or what?)

  4. Rhiannon
    February 5, 2009 at 1:58 pm

    I’ve never been able to verbalize what it was that bothered me about “Black History Month”. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. Black history shouldn’t be singled out – it should be integrated. It’s not a separate piece of history held in a vacuum of space and time, it IS history – ugh, again… I don’t feel I can verbalize my quandaries with this as well as you already have. So thank you.

  5. J
    February 5, 2009 at 5:37 pm

    I agree with a lot of what Renee is saying, but I’m still not ready to get on the BHM hate wagon (for lack of a better phrase). It’s true that we should do a better job of acknowledging the history of blacks and other marginalized groups, but I don’t see why that is a reason to not have black history month. Just because we have breast cancer awareness month doesn’t mean that we don’t fight the disease year round.
    My main holdup with BHM is that having a separate month may reinforce the notion that racism is an issue for black people, and not our country as a whole.

    Still, I have fond memories of celebrating BHM as a kid, and I certainly learned about the contributions of black women just as much as I learned about men. BHM was when I first learned about Mary Macleod Bethune, Shirley Chisholm, Madame CJ Walker, Marian Anderson, and lots of others. Should I have been learning these things year round? Absolutely, but I don’t see what is so wrong about taking additional time to highlight those contributions.

  6. Kristin
    February 5, 2009 at 8:05 pm

    Great post, Renee.

  7. denelian
    February 5, 2009 at 8:39 pm

    i have always wondered why BHm wasn’t in the same month as MLK day.

    what always bugged me is that Black history just isn’t THERE in school books. what we see in school is white people fighting white people, with black people as a pretext. outside of Harriet Tubman (is that the correct spelling?) and some Civil Rights movement leaders, EVERTHING is through the lens of white people.

    its not that white history is not important. its not even that the lens of white isn’t important. but i think all the OTHER viewpoints and such should be told TOO.

    i mean… as an example, i am Cherokee. so in 5th grade we were studying the Civil War and slavery and such, and i mention something about how horrible slavery was and how i was ashamed that some of my ancestors owned slaves. and THE TEACHER just stared at me. A HISTORY TEACHER didn’t know that the Cherokee owned black slaves too! (to give what little credit is due, to my knowledge black slaves were treated as indentured servents and were always emancipated and almost always adopted into the tribe, if they weren’t married into the tribe. but they STILL fuckined OWNED SLAVES). why didn’t she know this simple fact? because to her, only white people ever had enough money or influence to own slaves. i swear that she probably never thought about all the other cultures that owned slaves, and if she were confronted with histories showing white people owned as slaves (generally by other white people, mostly Romans owning slaves or in Northern Europe slaves won in war from other tribes) she would pass out. we had a huge fight in class that day, she sent me to the principle’s office for “lying” in class, i was very lucky that the principle knew enough history to know that the Cherokee DID in fact own slaves, so i didn’t get in any more trouble.

    so… what is it? only white people have history?

  8. shah8
    February 6, 2009 at 2:23 am

    denelian, without black people, there would *still* be a Cherokee Nation as well as some of the other Creek nations closer to the Mississippi.

    The reason why black history month is so pernicious is that it puts black history at a remove to american history, which leads to a very distorted, datum based history without a comprehensible gestalt that moves events. To put it bluntly, without black and chinese people, much of this country’s interior could never have been seized from the aboriginals.

  9. UnFit
    February 6, 2009 at 5:15 pm

    Great post, Renee.

    I don’t have any experience with Black History Month, but living in Germany as a half-Asian, I get endlessly annoyed at all the fake “diversity” crap.

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