A Reflection on Black History (Which is American History)
Reflecting on Black History Month as well as recent events has afforded me an opportunity to consider the ways in which we recognize and highlight historically oppressed and marginalized groups. We have been living through a sustained global pandemic, community loss, anti-Asian violence, anti-semitism, anti-Black racism, and the obvious ongoing disparities in healthcare and education.The last several years have required us to examine our society, how we arrived in this place, and our collective contributions to being in this place. It is a reminder that history is not just about the past -it is informed and shaped by our present, by us.
If you scroll through any social media at the start of any month or week, you see historically marginalized groups getting their respective recognition. Black History month is no different. These types of communications are an effort to show appreciation to various groups of people that are often erased or silenced during the rest of the year until their time for recognition comes around again. Truth be told, I find engaging in these types of communications problematic in that they perpetuate a narrative that America’s history is owned by the dominant culture. History is neither static nor linear. It is all encompassing, nuanced, and should be inclusive. We have a collective capacity to help shift this norm.
Black history is an integral part of America’s history. As such, it should be incorporated into America’s curriculum. This could shift America’s narrative and understanding of its people by creating real opportunities for other stories to be told in an historical context. Whether our American story is a consequence of horrific enslavement, fleeing persecution, seeking new opportunity, or being born here, we have all inherited a country that we know is rooted in the oppression and violence of “othering” human beings. For some of us, we continue to fight to be treated equitably and recognized in our full humanity. For others, the capacity to assimilate, to become part of the dominant culture, is often rooted in a deep loss of familial traditions and customs. And because of this, our understanding and learning of America’s whole history should not be portioned out on specific dates as a reminder to appreciate it in its entirety.
In her book, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent, Isabel Wilkerson writes:
“We in the developed world are like homeowners who inherited a house on a piece of land that is beautiful on the outside, but whose soil is unstable loam and rock, heaving and contracting over generations, cracks patched but the deeper ruptures waved away for decades, centuries even. Many people may rightly say, ‘I had nothing to do with how this all started. I have nothing to do with the sins of the past. My ancestors never attacked Indigenous people, never owned slaves.’ And, yes. Not one of us was here when this house was built. Our immediate ancestors may have had nothing to do with it, but here we are, the current occupants of a property with stress cracks and bowed walls and fissures built into the foundation. We are the heirs to whatever is right or wrong with it. We did not erect the uneven pillars or joists, but they are ours to deal with now.”
During his tenure, the Trump administration established the 1776 Commission to produce a report that countered the 1619 Project. In it, they called upon schools to return to teaching European-based American history. If adopted, this recommendation would have resulted in the erasure of Americans who deserve equal recognition for their contributions to this country. The creation of this report was an effort to discredit the investigation of the 1619 Project while negating the importance of talking about race and critical race theory. It is critical that educators who claim an interest in equity-based approaches intentionally engage in culturally responsive teaching and practice.
I’d suggest including the stories of America’s Freedom Riders and abolitionists. Intersect this history with the stories of immigrants arriving from Europe and beyond who felt compelled to give up their culture to assimilate into White America. When discussing women’s empowerment, engage in a full conversation around the feminist movement and center the anti-Black contradictions that made this an exclusionary movement while preaching equity and inclusion.
Include in these discussions the Combahee River Collective’s response to the anti-Blackness of the feminist movement. Be sure to discuss the history of medical experimentation on Black people when debating the rise and use of vaccines and the reality of the evolution of modern medicine in America. Highlight the significance of the Stonewall Riots and very explicitly name Marsha P. Johnson on equitable footing alongside Harvey Milk for their shared and necessary contributions to the LGBTQ+ movement. Highlight the role of Chinese immigrants who died building the transcontinental railroad and how they helped completely change the American landscape. We can acknowledge how there is very little difference between putting Latinx immigrant children in cages and Japanese Americans in internment camps. There is a plethora of past and present American history missing here but my point is that to relegate these histories as “special mentions'' in the appropriate month, erases the human beings who helped shape and contribute to this country.
I want to explicitly state that this is not an attempt to co-opt Black History month through “multiculturalism” or minimize the importance of individual group recognition in any other month. By valuing the whole history of Black folks beyond this month of February and as full citizens of this country we create an opportunity to elevate diverse American history and provide an option for other stories to be told that are a part of that history. This is a call for real inclusivity about the people who helped build this nation and whose ancestors have been unable to benefit from their labor and sacrifices. American history is our collective history. And I encourage all of us to find joy in and recognition in our individual narratives and history to integrate these collective histories into this old house called America in which we all reside.