What to do if someone asks: ‘Why isn’t there a White History Month?’ (participation)

What to do if someone asks: ‘Why isn’t there a White History Month?’

Opinion

by Blair L.M. Kelley | February 11, 2013 at 2:45 PM
In this April 4, 2012 file photo, people visit the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington. Whether visitors want to try one of the first family’s favorite restaurants, discover a sense of history or escape from the crowd to find a museum off the beaten path, Washington is the nation’s cultural capital this weekend for inauguration visitors. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)In this April 4, 2012 file photo, people visit the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington. Whether visitors want to try one of the first family’s favorite restaurants, discover a sense of history or escape from the crowd to find a museum off the beaten path, Washington is the nation’s cultural capital this weekend for inauguration visitors. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)

Every February 1st, it happens like clockwork. Folks complain. On Twitter and Facebook, in idle chatter before meetings and around the water cooler someone wonders aloud why there has to be Black History Month.

People write letters to editors decrying that they have to explain to their children why there is no “White History Month.” Then, they insist that if the idea of white history month is racist, then black history month must be racist too. Many of these conversations do not end well.

As a historian of African-American history I could get upset at these comments. I could suggest that they survive the middle passage, endure intergenerational slavery, fight for emancipation, and start their own history organization in the midst of Jim Crow segregation. Then they can honor their own history makers who were ignored by mainstream history books. They can follow that up by getting to work planning annual conferences to encourage more research and unearth new generations of scholars. Then if they can keep that tradition alive for almost a hundred years they’ll be able to pick a month to celebrate that history to remember what’s been accomplished and reflect on what more needs to be done.

But I don’t.

When I’m asked about Black History Month, I usually tell them about its founder, Carter G. Woodson. Woodson, the second African-American to graduate with a Ph.D. in history from Harvard University, believed that African-Americans had to understand their own history in order to effectively contest segregation and disfranchisement.

Inspired by the semi-centennial celebration of the general emancipation, Woodson founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (now the Association for the Study of African American Life and History) in 1915. Woodson’s organization hosts annual conferences where researchers can share their new findings. In order to share historical discoveries with the public at large, Woodson began to promote the celebration of Negro History Week in 1926. Choosing February to coincide with the celebration of the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, Negro History Week was Woodson’s attempt to make sure that black Americans knew about the range of important figures, movements, and events that had shaped African American’s march toward freedom.

Popular response to the celebration was immediate. Negro History Week allowed black schools, organizations, and churches a chance to expand their knowledge about black activists, writers, artists, and the movements that defined their history. Over time these celebrations grew to be month-long affairs in many communities, officially becoming Black History Month in 1976.

And I sometimes wonder what Woodson would think about the commercialization of the celebration today. For some Black History Month is just one long game of Trivial Pursuit or a chance to sell history themed T-shirts and calendars. The trivia version of black history month allows you to purchase posters and shirts that feature the image of Sojourner Truth alongside a picture of Michael Jordan, but it doesn’t require you to really know anything about either of them.

At its best history should require us to rethink the things we think we know. Instead of plugging in the names of great black men and women, this history should challenge us. It should explore the ways that ordinary people helped to shape their world. Good history reshapes assumptions. It forces us to learn from past failures, reassess our achievements, and re-imagine what is possible. Critical engagement with history helps unflatten all the “great” figures our past, and helps us understand more about the journey of the nation. Like Woodson, I believe that a broad understanding of black history can help to create a broad understanding of American history as a whole.

So to all those who might complain about the celebrations this February, I would remind them that black history month is not a requirement. They can just opt out of thinking about history at all this month. But for me its an honor to stand on the shoulders of those who accomplished so much. Their work has enriched us all.

And if anyone wants to create a history celebration of their own, its fine. I’m happy anytime history breaks into the national conversation. But in the spirit of Woodson please be sure not to complain, just get to work.

Blair L. M. Kelley is an associate professor at North Carolina State University. Follow her on Twitter at @ProfBLMKelley

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16 thoughts on “What to do if someone asks: ‘Why isn’t there a White History Month?’ (participation)

  1. This is indeed a touchy subject for many.

    My personal opinion is that instead of having a Black History month, we should have an American history month. After all, the United States was a major perpetrator of segregation, oppression, etc. of black people within its borders. Therefore, whether you like it or not, it became a part of American history, along with the struggles experienced by Native Americans when they were forced into reservations by immigrants, the helplessness the Japanese felt in their interment camps during World War II, etc.

    My point (and you can disagree with me here) is that it is frustrating for me as an Asian (Korean, more specifically) to see Black History month made so popular (and commercialized), while hardly any recognition (by comparison) is given to the other races.

    By replacing Black History month with an American history month, we can recognize and reflect on all the struggles those who lived in the United States went through in the past. This is somewhat related to the equality vs. equity discussions that we had in class. I believe an American History month would result in equity in terms of recognizing all the struggles experienced by each race.

    In regards to the author’s last statement (of which, I believe he meant well), isn’t complaining about a supposed problem a step to fixing it? It seems like he was dismissing all the criticisms of Black History month… or maybe I’m reading into it too much.

    • Why do you think people spend more time highlighting or criticizing black history month and not criticizing or challenging those who have and continue to erase people of color from history books, from documentaries, etc. Also, how does the criticism ignore the white normativity of history books (history, which has been multiracial is imagined through whites, yet it is called history

      The point of the article is that the histories, cultural contributions, literature, etc. are ignore and erased from history classes, in k-12, etc.

      Lastly, it was written by a woman

      • Yes, I get the point of the article. My point is that we must tackle these problems one by one, and to put full attention on each one so that they at least have a chance of getting solved. Divided attention hardly ever helps in the long run.

  2. Being white, I have always personally wondered why there was a black history month and no other month to celebrate other races accomplishments. After reading this article it made more sense to me that they are celebrating the great accomplishments that they have made (that they survived the middle passage, endured intergenerational slavery and fought for emancipation) rather than just their race in general. I also agree with the comment above about changing the name to accept all minorities’ accomplishments rather than just one race, especially because America is becoming more and more diverse. I am also glad that I can now tell/justify to my fellow white friends about why black history month is deserved (because of their great accomplishments) and why we don’t need our own month to celebrate our privileges that we have been fortunate enough to have.

  3. This article reminds me of when i was back in high school having a conversation with a group of people, some of different races, and they popped this same question. Honestly i just feel like its well deserved that African Americans should get their own month. Just think of all we fought for, been through, gained and accomplished up to this date. I don’t know how many classes I’ve took where we talked about black being over powered by whites, like the comment above when she talked about middle passage, going through slavery and being involved in movements that made us a lot more equal that back then. I just feel in order to understand why we have a black history month you would of course have to know the history behind it, i also feel no other race tough as hard as us to gain what blacks want in society, so like i said before its well deserved.

  4. So it seems to me that it started out as Black history week to teach about how important the people and movements of the past and present are. These contributed to the African American fight for equality. Then it became a month-long festival. At first the idea of Black History month wasn’t racist at all because it was about teaching history. Now, however that’s not the case. Racism is the exploitation, social domination, and belief in superiority/inferiority. The author says so herself that people use Black History Month as a way to sell posters and t-shirts. Black History month has gotten away from its original intentions. People nowadays believe Black History Month is a celebration of Black people themselves – not their struggle. That is why so many people feel like it is racist. The author is right; less attention has been given to the history of the struggle and instead its been placed on the present creating a battle over whether its racist or not. Which is ironic because Woodson created Negro History week to encourage intelligence in the battle against segregation but it seems it has had the opposite affect. It literally divides white and black people by placing a name on a month.

    • I am not sure how you are applying the definition of racism here — there is no social domination and there are certainly no efforts to promote a notion of superiority or inferiority. In fact, black history month work to challenge the curricular and cultural erasure.

      Does black history month cause divisions or does a history class that claims to be teaching history or a literature class that claims to be teaching literature yet only teach about the history involving whites (often men, often wealthy); how does this connect to idea of colorblindness

      It seems you are talking about commodification, which is something we should talk as to how black history month or multiculturalism (not too mention other holidays) have been stripped of transformative meaning. But that is a different conversation. Let me know repeat question above

      Why do you think people spend more time highlighting or criticizing black history month and not criticizing or challenging those who have and continue to erase people of color from history books, from documentaries, etc. Also, how does the criticism ignore the white normativity of history books (history, which has been multiracial is imagined through whites, yet it is called history

    • How does privilege fit here – think invisible knapsack — who is the privilege to learn about “their history,” who has the privilege to read books written by and about members of their community every month? Who has to wait for a single month or week to get this sort of visibility?

  5. I have always wondered this and wondered why there isn’t a specific month for all races such as Latinos having the month of February, Caucasians having the month of April and so on. I think that the author makes a solid point, that it is a celebration and that it is NOT a requirement. I had no idea there was a founder of the month long celebration and it was brought to my attention that other holidays could be made just like this one if someone wanted to. I will rethink my thoughts next time I ask why there is no White History Month.

  6. In my opinion, the main reason that there is not a white history month is because until the 1980’s, other races have been completely shut down and discriminated against in scientific, political, and social communities. Therefore, the national government has instituted these months to credit the individuals who mad a significant difference in advancing the knowledge of the human race and the helping of their respective racial images. However, the MAIN reason why I do not believe there is a white history month is because the white race of people has been suppressing other races for an extended period of time. To make a white history month would almost be the equivalent of giving white people a medal for doing inhumane acts against humanity.

  7. Clara: If the history of Native Americans, Asian Americans, and Chicano/Latinos is erased from textbooks; if literature and culture is erased in classrooms and elsewhere, isn’t there still a need for these months to challenge what normativity in these spaces

  8. I believe that customs such as Black History Month or Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month are crucial in modern society. There are countless historical figures and events that we are educated on pertaining to American history from primary school until now. However, much of history is told, and written, by the victors of the past and this very history provides us with a limited perspective on struggles that many different cultures and ethnicities have experienced and conquered. The various months dedicated to specific ethnic heritages provide much insight on the struggles, achievements, and their history. It provides a chance for the newer generations to learn more about their own ancestors – and maybe even parents – that they would have never experienced today.

    With that said, these months acknowledge figures and people of that specific ethnicity that have made a huge impact on American society. For example, Martin Luther King Jr. is one of the most celebrated individuals in both Black History Month and American history and provides a reminder of how hard he and countless other blacks fought for our rights.

    In regard to “why isn’t there a White History Month?”, American society has been influenced by so many societies and so many ethnic groups that we can hardly discuss “White history” without the mention and involvement of other races and cultures. Though many white individuals have European blood (part French, part German, part Swedish, etc.), the culture is essentially American. There is no ethnic group called “White-American”.

    **Though a few previous posts mentioned the growing diversity in America, each ethnicity, and culture are different, just as African-American culture is different from both Asian-American and Native-American cultures. Celebrating the history of all minorities greatly weakens any personal ties an individual may have to or can possibly have to their respective ethnicity.

  9. I think that Black History Month is a really great idea and concept. We as americans are much too worried about always making things equal. If Johnny get a cookie, Jim should to. This doesn’t always need to be the case. If African Americans want to celebrate their history and all that they have accomplished they should be able to! Just like how the Chinese New Year is celebrated here across America even though not everyone is chinese. Although we are , or should be, all equal that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t celebrate the subtle differences. The world would be a really boring place is everybody celebrated the same holidays and had exactly the same mindset. I think that white people need to realize that although individually we may have had struggles, as a whole we haven’t. White people are privileged, always have been and always will be. African Americans have had struggles and they overcame them. That should be celebrated. I think that African Americans should continue to celebrate what they want and anyone else that wants to celebrate something unique should be able to! What makes us different, makes us special.

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