Over twenty years ago when I was teaching in a school in Queens, New York, where about 80% of the students were white, I put up a Black History Month display in my classroom. I also put up pictures of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln as well as reluctantly devoting one bulletin board to ubiquitous Valentine’s Day hearts (as I was begged by the young ladies in the class to do so). My Black History Month display included photos of famous black Americans, a timeline of events in black history, and posters featuring the accomplishments of black people.
When the eighth graders came in that day, I noticed several of the (white) boys taking note of the display. Out of a class of thirty one, there were two Hispanic students, one black, and one Korean; the rest were white. One of the more surly young white fellows raised his hand and asked, “Why is that up there?” I was waiting for this and replied, “February is Black History Month.”
Another kid (also white) raised his hand. “Why isn’t there an Irish History Month?” And so it began. As the month progressed, I had parents coming into my classroom (thankfully before or after school) and questioning this as well. One man who was dressed in an obviously expensive suit pointed to the pictures of the presidents and said, “That’s what this month is supposed to be about.”
I looked at Lincoln’s picture and said, “Yes, you’re right, Mr. Lincoln helped make this month possible when he freed the slaves.” The gentlemen gave me no response and left in a huff.
By the end of that month, I had some success and admittedly some failures in the process of teaching and promoting this month of recognition of black history; however, I was glad I did it. I knew these children had to be exposed to something they didn’t know anything about. They were too insulated, too misguided in their assumptions about everything to do with race, and I believed we got somewhere in those twenty-eight days, but I felt there was so much more yet to do. Twenty-plus years later, I still do.
When I wrote a piece about Dr. King last month, I almost could have predicted some of the negative reactions I would receive. The general nature of the complainants reminded me of my former students from so long ago. Basically, they said much the same thing: “Why should there be a holiday celebrating a black leader? There were great German, French, Irish, American Indian, and many other leaders; why not a day for them?” My response was usually very simple: Dr. King’s legacy is compelling as he led a wave of change that was necessary in this country. Recognition of Dr. King’s life is in honor of his accomplishments and their lasting effects on society; the honor is simply not because he is black (as some people have suggested).
Now, we are in the month of February and once again celebrating Black History Month. I can expect that some of the same people (crying over not enough hullabaloo over Columbus Day, St. Patrick’s Day, or even Arbor Day) who were annoyed about Dr. King’s day will be livid about this month long celebration. I can hear the questions: “Why do we have a Black History Month? What about Polish history? Danish history? Greek history?”
The answer, gentle readers, is very obvious. None of these other nationalities were ever brought to this country as slaves. After being captured in their native Africa, blacks were chained in the bottom of boats and brought here as a commodity. They were bought and sold with no regard for separating them from families or friends. These people were then forced into arduous service, unmercifully treated, and made to feel as if they were not any better than the master’s horse or plow. Their children were not educated, for the masters knew this would lead to revolt, and oftentimes were purposely taken away from their parents and sold as a way to break the spirit.
When one thinks of the suffering and oppression of black people who were slaves, it is even more amazing that rising out of that miasma there were so many inspirational stories, so much to be thankful for, and more than enough material for many more than one history month. Yes, all races and people have histories, but it is essential that every American study and understand black history simply because slavery was such an ugly part of our collective history. We also must recognize these resilient people who rose out of the ashes of slavery to shine a light on our culture and make the world a better place.
The many other races and cultures who flowed into our land came of their own volition. Yes, some may have been fleeing dire circumstances at home, but they sought a better life elsewhere and decided to come to America. Many may have been packed on ships in terrible conditions (as I’ve heard told on the Italian side of my family), but my great grandfather didn’t have chains around his arms and legs. He got off the boat a free man, was able to go to work in his trade of masonry, and made a wonderful life for himself and eventually his family. This was the American dream and it still beckons immigrants from all over the world, but blacks were not part of this equation of liberty and freedom that others were allowed to embrace.
I think all parents should discuss their heritage with their children, but it is imperative to also focus on people different than ourselves. It is absurd to think about establishing a “White History Month” simply because for most of our lifetimes, that was the only history being taught every month of the school year. The truth is that black history was hardly recognized let alone taught in a serious manner. Establishing February as Black History Month was a way to get school children to learn about the amazing black Americans who have done so much for their country and its culture: George Washington Carver, Fredrick Douglas, Harriet Tubman, Dred Scott, Dr. Charles Drew, Louis Armstrong, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Bunche, Thurgood Marshall, Maya Angelou, Oprah Winfrey, Sidney Poitier, Paul Robeson, Rosa Parks, Arthur Ashe, Henry (Hank) Aaron, and so many, many more.
Coretta Scott King passed away on the last day of January, a month which includes the holiday to honor her slain husband. He was a leader, a husband, a father, a preacher, and most notably a freedom fighter. Now, in her memory, during this Black History Month of February 2006, we ought to make certain that her husband’s most famous word’s (free at last) reverberate from the mountaintops of this great land to both shining seas. This is why we celebrate black history, a necessary and compelling reminder that freedom is not free; black Americans had to fight and struggle to attain it in this country. That is the most salient reason to vigorously celebrate this month every year.