What did you learn this Black History Month? Be honest. Did you expand your knowledge beyond Martin, Malcolm and Rosa? Did you attend a cultural dinner on campus and learn about the importance of collard greens and fried catfish in black culture? Or did you just forget it because you’re not black and it doesn’t affect you?
This isn’t a guilt piece. I won’t berate you with the usual arguments. Instead, let’s play a game. Close your eyes and go back to your elementary school classroom. You’re sitting in one of those blue, plastic chairs, writing something inappropriate on your desk when your teacher informs you it’s time for social studies. Try to remember all of those historical figures, wars and revolts you learned about. For every figure that looked like you, you get paid $1. How much did you make?
In my entire elementary education I might have collected a sweet $10. I went to a wonderful school in Northern Virginia, where my third-grade teacher pronounced the country of Niger incorrectly and I was one of four black students in a student population of 600. I was taught black history through two-dimensional paper cutouts that hung on walls for 28 days and then were promptly stored away for 12 months until they’d be used again. My entire view of my identity and the contributions of my culture was skewed. If this cursory and often negligent introduction to black Americans was your only interaction with black people, I’m sure your view was skewed, too.
If not for my parents, my education on black Americans probably would have stayed there. But for many other cultures my education did stop at laminated cutouts used for history months. I didn’t learn about the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II until I came to college. The Zoot Suit Riots? College. American Indian Movement? College. As much as I’ve cherished that explosion of historical knowledge, I hate that I had to wait 18 years to learn about it. I hate that a lot of people never will. The understanding and celebration of American culture have to start before we’re adults. For that to happen we need to teach our children about all Americans and encourage that throughout their lives.
I’m embarrassed that in 2014 the celebration of black, Asian, Native American, Latino and female accomplishment in this country is still relegated to specific times of the year and segmented into chapters, paragraphs and separate textbooks. These histories are just as American as our forefathers’ legacies or Eisenhower’s presidency, so why are they constantly treated as supplemental instead of essential?
I don’t want a black history month if it’s only purpose is to act as a pat on the back instead of an intentional learning experience. I don’t need UT to recognize it or large corporations to use it for financial gain under the guise of honoring it. I just want a seat at the table.
I’m not unhappy with Black History Month because of its existence. It was started in 1926 when black accomplishment was largely unheard of outside of the black community. I just don’t believe that the approach we have now is the most effective way of educating people. The celebration of black and other cultural months is largely internal. I don’t think that’s the purpose. Educating people about your culture is not the problem. The problem happens when we don’t have the same fervor for everyone else’s.
In order to change that, we have to look at our definition of American culture and expand it to be inclusive of every American. If we don’t do that we won’t be able to educate, celebrate or understand one another. Our textbooks and our schools need to reflect that.
Without a proper understanding of the past, we’re doomed to repeat it. Students, no matter their race or background, are owed the opportunity to learn about American history as it was, not as it’s been constructed to exclude and forget.
The one who holds the pen decides what is written. I just wish we all were holding it. Maybe one day we will but until we’re on the same page many of us will stay locked in the margins and in between the brackets of a calendar block.
Maney is a journalism senior. Follow Maney on Twitter @JordanManey.