For the record, I am not a fan of Black History Month. There’s inequality in the way we talk about the contributions of black people and white people in American History, and that’s a continuing factor in the racial separation plaguing the country. Black people are intricately entwined in the creation of America. One can only assume the exclusion and lack of celebration of our accomplishments can be linked to a single root case: white supremacy.
When the colonizers envisioned a new country, let’s face it, the Indigenous and the imported labor were not included as equals. When the Constitution was crafted, a black person was considered 3/5ths of a man. So when I read “all men were created equal,” in my head I silently hear “except slaves and Indians” (which is the three-fifths clause originally included in that document).
The truth is, if you flick on a light bulb, you have to thank a black person before thanking Thomas Edison. If you hop on an elevator, stop at a traffic light or ride a train, you must thank a black person. White people in America wouldn’t have made it to the moon if not for black people. Throughout our whole school career, black people must learn all about the greatness of whiteness through pioneers, inventors, captains of industry and colonizers. We get February.
But come March, I will still be black, yet the history and accomplishments of black people in America will be deemed no longer worth teaching. And somehow the designated month for black history still shares space with white history in educational institutions.
A friend recently said to me, “You’re lucky. You are privileged in that you grew up in a chocolate city. You didn’t starve for information about yourself. You don’t have to like black history month because you had black history all the time.”
It’s true. I am presently a Rhode Islander; I am not from Rhode Island. Not born here, not raised here, though groomed here, my experience as a Rhode Islander is, for a lack of better metaphor, as an immigrant coming from one cultural language and learning another through immersion.
The dominant culture here is whiteness. One of America’s greatest authors, patriots and critic James Baldwin said, “To be black and conscious in America is to be in a constant state of rage.” Being black, fitting into the dominant culture of whiteness, I can’t help but notice, whether subliminally or consciously, black erasure and exclusion is real. I can attest to the impact of seeing oneself positively as a contributing factor in how society is shaped. I can also bear witness to the lack of positive images playing a significant role in feeling worthless or “othered.”
Black History Month runs counter to the barrage of negative ethos, providing positive images of relatable characters in history for black people in America to take pride in. I honestly believe the lack of black heroes in American history (and education system) adds to the continuation of racism in this country. I have been in countless conversations where it’s been asked “What have black people contributed to the world besides peanut butter?”
So, this month provides the opportunity for white people to learn of the contributions made by black people. In places like Rhode Island, which are almost void of those opportunities, yet where history of black people is rich, I challenge white people learn more about the diversity of American history. This issue of Motif is a good start. To quote an American hero, Martin Luther King, Jr., “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.”