I thought I would avoid this question but I got the dreaded “When are you going to teach white history?” Why is some of “white” America so “butt hurt” over Black History Month? And come to think of it a certain news celebrity of color too. I have seen social memes and comments that have included “When is White America going to have a Month?” “Black History Month is Racist!” “Why do we have to have a Black History Month?” In a perfect world, YOU WOULDN’T. Nor would you have Women’s History Month, in March, a Native American Heritage Month, in November, a Hispanic Heritage Month beginning in the middle September or any of the others that you can take the time to look up. Unfortunately, we are not, nor have we been, living in a perfect world. To quote a former student, “We celebrate white history in all months that don’t begin with F.” Well, there are those three months that teachers are NOT on vacation.
As a retired, high school history teacher I know history books are written from a decidedly Anglo-American point of view…well…at least where I taught. Asians are mentioned about four times. Transcontinental Railroad, Chinese Exclusion Act and the Japanese involvement in World War Two and China goes communist. Oh, I almost forgot Viet Nam. That makes five. Hispanic contributions, maybe a bit more. Spanish colonization, Mexican-American War, Imperialism, Pancho Villa, and then a jump to NAFTA and the question “Why are they taking our jobs?” Notice, these are all mostly decidedly negative when viewed from an Anglo point of view. Native Americans are prominent but disappear after Wounded Knee unless you happen to bring them back up in the Sixties with the many social movements. Again, until recently, Custer’s Last Stand was viewed negatively by Anglo America. Damn Redskins stepping on our Manifest Destiny and the only good Indian…! I digress.
I rarely taught Black history during Black History Month. I was wrong. I deluded myself into thinking that I taught ALL HISTORY ALL YEAR LONG and didn’t need to focus on Black history. Then I began to assess what I had taught. I’m not happy. Kind of like ALL HISTORY CAN’T MATTER UNTIL BLACK HISTORY MATTERS. Denmark Vesey, Nat Turner, Harriett Tubman, Fredrick Douglass, W.E.B Dubois versus Booker T. Washington, Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King and maybe Malcomb X. There were others but most were only related to one aspect of African-American lives and American history. A decidedly important aspect but besides George Washington Carver and Langston Hughes there was nothing about other contributions.
Black History Month should be viewed as an opportunity to spotlight contributions by African Americans. Musicians, artist, writers, poets, inventors, explorers, scientists, business people, soldiers, etc. As a teen I picked up one of my father’s books, Foxes of Harrow. It was written by Frank Yerby. I read all of his books that my father had and along the way picked up a few more. They featured historical fiction and a bit of…latent eroticism. Nothing graphic! As a young adult I was looking for more of his books and found out he was bi-racial and from Georgia. Who knew and it didn’t matter. Just like celebrating Black History Month shouldn’t matter to those railing against it. It should be a positive educational experience.
Three of my last four years teaching were teaching “cultural” geography. I loved it. One, I had no end of school testing pressure and could go off on any tangent I desired go off on. I could be creative and allow creativity from my students. It became about cultural diversity. It also reminds me of a paragraph I wrote in a story about a former student turned preacher. “Today I look at diversity as a smorgasbord of delights. I believe we should just focus on how diversely different people party. How can you be distrustful of people who produce such wonderful food? My life without Latin, Soul, Oriental and Cajun foods would not be life ending but life would not be as joyous, especially without a Belgian, Mexican, Jamaican or German beer or maybe some Tennessee whiskey to go with it and a Cuban cigar for afterwards. Someone might as well play some Blues, Reggae or a little Zydeco to help the atmosphere along. It is just as easy to focus on the positives about diversity as it is the negatives and again with knowledge comes understanding.”
I realize that I am a social liberal and make no excuses. I believe that the rights that someone else is given doesn’t take my rights away from me despite what I might think, including the right to celebrate Black History Month…or Cinco De Mayo and St. Patrick’s Day for that matter. In fact, I have joined in. Who knows? This old dog might just learn a new trick or twenty.