Why Black History Month Is Important for Everyone
“What if we had a white history month? People would be outraged!”
Without fail, every year around the time of Black History Month, I hear this comment. Not just once, either, I hear it said over and over by white people who can’t bear to have a day that isn’t about them. It gets called “reverse racism” (which isn’t a thing, by the way.) It’s said that recognizing the unique accomplishments of black people further divides races, and that, “Why does everything have to be about race?”
It’s generally said by people who consider themselves so not racist, they are “colourblind.” They are people who want to just leave this whole race thing behind us and treat everyone as the equals they are. This is a noble thought, and wouldn’t it be nice if we were there – but we are not. The only people who can afford not to address or acknowledge race are white people. Being colourblind is a privilege. Not having the need for a white history month is a privilege, not a slight.
We need a Black History Month because we have spent hundreds of years actively erasing black history.
We all know the saying, “History books are written by the victors.” The same applies to power and privilege. History books were, and still are, largely written by white men. In this day and age, that means they are being written with a subconscious bias, but earlier in history, they were written with absolute and intentional racism and sexism. Early history books didn’t acknowledge black people as human, never mind documenting their contributions to the world.
As time went on, the work of black people was often passed over and credited to white people. In early America, black Americans who were born into slavery were not permitted to hold patents. That didn’t mean they weren’t inventors, though. Many of their inventions went on to be adopted into use, but they did not receive credit for them.
Black women have been double-erased. Their contributions as black people have been whitewashed, and their contributions as women have been ignored. Consider one of the most well-known cases of this, the women behind the book and movie Hidden Figures: Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Dorothy Vaughan. Their work was vital to NASA, but they didn’t get the credit they deserved until very recently – recognition gained in large part due to initiatives like Black History Month, which pushes us to look for their stories.
Without the active call to look for these incredible stories within black history, many of them go forever unrecognized. When history is documented by white men, and white people want to be “colourblind”, there is no motivation for people with privilege to seek out and learn these stories.
Black History Month shines a spotlight on the void where these stories should be.
In addition to giving these stories, and these people, the justice they deserve, Black History Month is an excellent opportunity for everyone to learn about these incredible people. Public speaker and writer Brittany Packnett beautifully puts into perspective the significance of learning about black people throughout history. “Black descendants of enslaved people across the Americas are STILL HERE. You ever really think about what that means? Don’t disrespect the ancestors. They breathed life into us. No way we’d be here if they weren’t the most creative, most powerful, most triumphant. We were supposed to build their countries and then die off. We were discarded. Here we are, generations later, inventing and reinventing the whole world.”
I grow tired of hearing the triumphs and accomplishments of people who were born into privilege. Yes, these stories have a place in history and are important, but they are well-documented and handed down through generations of grade-school history classes.
Tell me the stories of people who accomplished greatness when the world did not even acknowledge their humanity. Tell me the stories of strength and triumph and survival that are unique to black people alone. Tell the stories so that the descendants of these astonishing people can take pride in their history, and tell the stories so that those of us with privilege that we gained on the backs of these ancestors can hold ourselves accountable.
Being colourblind is a noble idea, but it’s a false solution. We can’t stop seeing race – not while the power is still held by white people who refuse to acknowledge their privilege. “Celebrate all history” is just as tone-deaf as “all lives matter” and “not all men.”
We have celebrated white history in North America for centuries. Spotlighting black history specifically for one month a year will not threaten that. It’s sad enough that we even confine it to one month when black history should be celebrated as loudly and as frequently as the history in our outdated textbooks.
This month, each time you are tempted to scoff at the notion or the need for Black History Month, I want you to stop immediately, and learn about one black person in history and the way that person has bettered your life today.
Learn their names. Learn their faces. Thank them. Then do it again and again until you realize that Black History Month is a gift to people of all races.