In Case You Didn’t Know—Why Black History Month Matters

By Mary Clark

February is a special month. It's a time full of hearts, flowers, and love. It's the month of Valentine's Day! Whether you love it or hate it, it's here, so we all have to be prepared. But February isn't just about all that stuff—it's a time to look back and recall a large group of history, and a group that is very much an important part of our present.

I remember in third grade, specifically, leaving my classroom with all my friends and being led to the room next door. The whole grade was there (I went to a small school, 65 people in my graduating class). We walked in and immediately saw the TV on the rolling stand, you know the one we all loved to see in class because it meant movie day! We were told to sit on the floor, and the teacher proceeded to turn on the TV. It showed a cartoon about this boy named Martin. I remember watching the movie and looking up at the chalkboard where the teacher had hung a border with the faces of several Black people whose names I knew a few of.

When the movie was over, the teacher stood at the front of the room and told us that February was Black History month. It was a month set aside just so that we could remember and celebrate the great things that Black Americans did for our country. She said Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was one of the most famous, along with Rosa Parks and many others. She told us the movie was about the great things that Dr. King did while he was alive. Then, right there in the floor, she told us to take out a sheet of paper and write why we thought Dr. King was so important, and why Black History month was important.

Today, I can't remember what I wrote. But I know I probably have a tremendously more eloquent answer now. Since then, every year, February comes and goes. Every year when I was younger, Disney Channel would play little skits highlighting an important Black American. Now, every year, Facebook gives me my daily dose of Black History and I love reading about people; both the extremely famous and the overlooked. However, just as I love reading about this history, there are always people on social media that say, "Why is there a Black History month? We don't have a White History month."

Good question! Why do we have Black History month?

Let me begin to answer that question by asking another one. If we were to have a White History month, who would we celebrate? George Washington? Jonas Salk? Eleanor Roosevelt? Katherine Hepburn? If we had a White History month, what would we celebrate? When America gained independence from England? If we had a White History month, what would we deem important to remember? When Napoleon was defeated in France? 9/11? The cure for polio? If we had a White History month, what could we talk about that wasn't already celebrated, talked about, and remembered in our history books?

Not a damn thing. 

White history has no beginning and no end in America.

I remember my American History book from school, I want to say 5th or 6th grade. It was filled with all the great things the presidents did, and scientists did, and even some celebrities. But I remember there only being one small section in one chapter out of that entire book about the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, it couldn't have been more than four paragraphs. It mentioned Harriet Tubman, it mentioned Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. That was it. According to that book, those were the only two Black Americans that mattered.

Now, I'm not saying that if every Black person isn't mentioned in a history book then it's an insult. Obviously, not every White person is in the history books. But when page on page on page of history is filled with no mention of the contributions Black Americans made to this country, and this world, it's an insult. When the history of Black people is called "Black History," but the history of everyone else is just "History," well, it doesn't make much sense.

Black Americans have a rich history: nearly every form of popular music today has its roots in African and early-Black spiritual culture (yes, even country music), fashion is inspired by Black culture (box braids, anyone?), and African and Black American art and literature provide a wealth of knowledge and perspective that is unique and glorious. However, many people don't know, or acknowledge, any of this. In school, we read Shakespeare, Chaucer, Tennessee Williams, and Emily Dickinson, but we are lucky to even get a taste of Maya Angelou, Chinua Achebe, or Chimamanda Adichie, and the same is true of college.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie speaking at a TED conference. Image: TED

Adichie herself writes about the danger of a single story, and by asking "Why do we have Black History month," and by not acknowledging this history right alongside the history we have always been taught, we fall into the trap of this single story. This means that when all you see and all you hear is one thing, one type of story, you lose any hope of gaining perspective or broadening our ideas of what this world is. For a long time Adichie wrote stories about little white girls, because that was all she read about. But that wasn't her experience, and by her breaking out of that single idea, she created a richer identity for herself, and a richer culture for the rest of us. 

If we all fall into one way of thinking, we stagnate as human beings, as free thinkers. This is dangerous to the growth of our cultures—both individually and collectively. We as White Americans know little of Black history and nothing of African history, yet we know everything of the conquests of Christians, Europeans, and "Americans." We are incredibly stagnant in our perspective of what this world actually is and has to offer. We are ignorant about everything beyond our single stories, and that's a problem.

History speaks for itself, and whites have always disregarded the cultures and histories of others. No, you may not have owned slaves, or have ever used racially derogative terms, but every time someone asks the question, "Why do we have Black History month?" we disrespect the already disrespected culture that literally helped build this country. That is not okay.

An idea that always puts this into perspective for me is "when your history is a school requirement but my history is an elective, something isn't right." No, we shouldn't have to have a Black History month. We shouldn't have to have it because it shouldn't be separated from “mainstream” history. But guess what? It is, and that's why we have it. That's why it is important. It's important because when we learn about Amelia Earhart and Charles Lindbergh, we don't also learn about Bessie Coleman and Eugene Bullard.

That's why it's a thing and should be celebrated, and until it is one and the same with plain ole' history, suck it up buttercup because everytime February rolls around it's going to be Black History month.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, James "Cool Papa" BellVivien Thomas, Dr. Mildred Jefferson, and Harriet Tubman aren't just Black history, they are history. 

Mary Clark is an editor at the Galleon and a senior at Christian Brothers University. 

Posted by Josh Colfer at 4:08 PM

The Galleon is curated and managed by Christian Brothers University, a Memphis-based university founded in the Lasallian tradition (a sect within the Catholic faith). Part of our founding mission is to uphold respect for all persons-regardless of political, religious, or social beliefs. As an institution, we take no stand on political matters; to do so would undermine our commitment to intellectual inquiry and thoughtful response to events taking place in our World by members of the CBU community.

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