Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Black History Month for White Boys

So it's Black History Month again, and it makes me remember what it was like going through it when I was going to school.  Back when I was in school my 70% white classes would have some lessons on Harriett Tubman and George Washington Carver, and there would be posters of Sojourner Truth and Martin Luther King in the hallways.  Once I did a report on WEB DuBois, because the school library thought that a bookish kid would get a kick out of learning about a famous intellectual.

I learned some stuff then -- I learned quite a bit about WEB DuBois, for instance.  But what I learned seemed rather separate from the rest of my studies -- there was American History, where black people were the background and occasionally the subject of actions by whites, and Black History, where black people took an active role but mostly effected themselves.  My own history was American history, while Black History was something other -- a worthy object of study that showed human diversity, like Asohka's India, but equally removed from my own heritage. 

Needless to say this is wrong.  Black History is American History, and one of its most important parts of it (sorry Irish Americans).  Without the actions of Black Americans 'contrabanding' themselves during the civil war, or fighting for the Union, we might not have a Union today.  Without blacks seizing their rights in the 50's and 60's, the American political landscape as we know it would not exist.  I could go on -- African Americans have been in this country since the 17th century, and have done a lot in that time.  More personally, Black history is in some sense my history - Frederick Douglass and King affected my life no less than George Washington affected the life of a black kid from PG county. In treating it as something foreign I was only impoverishing myself.

It would be cute to say that this is the fault of Black History Month, or my teachers, or whatever, but on some level it comes down to me.  In the end this is my responsibility -- I was the privileged white kid who thought Frederick Douglass had nothing to teach me.  It was my loss, and my business to correct the mistake. 

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