We need black history month now more than ever

Nearly everything I know about black history was learned outside of my formal education. I should point out that I’ve attended great schools — Farmington public high school is number 12 in the state of Connecticut, and Elon University is at the top of countless national lists.

But there’s one area where those institutions fall shamefully short: black history education. This is particularly true of Farmington schools — the area of my education that was regulated by statewide and national requirements.

If black people didn’t celebrate it, black history month would be largely forgotten.

The one thing that was taught to me in classrooms from Connecticut to North Carolina was this: the promise of black history month has only been held up by those who initially suggested it. In case you were never taught the history behind this month (I wasn’t), I’ll explain further: in 1926, Carter G. Woodson, a black historian, suggested that the nation take one month of the year to teach about black history in schools. Nearly a century later, the only group collectively celebrating all month long are black Americans.

I’ll take it one step further: if black people didn’t celebrate it with such fervor, black history month would be largely forgotten.

In a way this makes sense: Because of the far-reaching effects of systemic racism, there is no institution, from education to government, from law enforcement to media, that is unaffected by the shameful legacy of racial hatred in America. At one point, classrooms and newsrooms alike were completely devoid of minorities, not by chance, but by design. Today, black history month is remembered in those spaces because someone fought for it to be remembered.

This was certainly true in my well-appointed, suburban elementary school: my mom had to pull up and complain about the total neglect of black history month one February.
I remember distinctly that a communal bulletin board had been updated just before the start of the month — to commemorate Holocaust Remembrance Day. But the theme lasted through all of February. We read Number the Stars and learned about Anne Frank — important things to know. But a day of remembrance of one group’s history had completely replaced a month that might be a black student’s only chance all year to see a face like theirs on an overhead projector or a rollaway TV screen (except for the MLK cartoon, of course).

Our Friend Martin

Just the other day my older sister, another FHS graduate, pointed this out to me: more than likely, years before we’d moved to town, someone else’s mom had marched to the school to fight for Number the Stars and The Diary of Anne Frank. She, one among a significant Jewish population in my town, probably had to complain so that her child would be taught the history of their people as well.

I’d never considered this before. It had never dawned on me that one might have to remind someone to teach students comprehensive history. But it still didn’t answer my questions about how black history can be so easily forgotten. Despite what most of us learn in school, it is deeply entwined with American history. We’re talking Revolutionary War? Crispus Attucks, a black man, was the first casualty. We’re on the poetry unit in English class? Hey Langston! You eat lunch at the peanut-free table? Blame George Washington Carver.

No, no, this isn’t forgetfulness, this is erasure. And in my experience, it was carried out by well-meaning white teachers just doing their jobs. They taught and even helped develop a curriculum that went along with the guidelines they were given.

That educational void, believe it or not, has led us to the xenophobia and racism of today.

In elementary school, homework was Valentine’s Day themed for the first 14 days of February, because that’s what was happening in their world. By high school, I’d see February 28 come and go, having spent the past month not learning about Daniel Hale Williams in biology class, or Katherine Johnson in math class, or black Union soldiers in advanced placement U.S. history.

My parents had done everything they could to secure great educational opportunities for my siblings and me. They moved to the best district in the area, made sure we played sports and got involved with clubs. Even when they had to march up to the school on occasion, they still thought they’d enrolled us in a district that would prepare us for college, the expected next step. And they had. Farmington schools left us more than prepared for the universities we attended. But if it hadn’t been supplemented by outside experiences, our formal education would have left us black kids widely unprepared for the world we’d face outside our little valley in Connecticut.

Here’s the punchline, though: because they had not black church to attend on Sundays, no Jack and Jill groups to be a part of, no minorities in their lives unless they wanted them there, our white peers graduated alongside us and entered the world completely unaware of crucial realities. That educational void, believe it or not, has led us to the xenophobia and racism of today.
Because it was never taught to them, because they were never expected to know it, too many of my white counterparts are either blindsided by or in denial about the stark racial divide that defines American history and present circumstances.

“If a race has no history, it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated.” –Carter G. Woodson

Each February, black history month is met with resistance, surprise and, too often, disregard. “Slavery is in the past,” “the civil rights movement fixed it” and “Obama was elected twice” are some of the reasons offered as to why we should stop celebrating this month.

In reality, there’s one argument that should shatter all of this: We have 28 days in a year to try and make up for what public and private educational institutions have willfully neglected to teach. And until comprehensive history is taught across all our institutions, we cannot let up.

It’s not enough to teach our black children at home, or attend an HBCU for a few years, or enroll our kids in an ethnically diverse school system. We will inevitably be affected by a person who hasn’t the slightest clue how minorities have been treated in the past, and therefore have very little basis as to how we should be treated in the future.

These miseducated students go on to become judges and police officers and presidents of the United States. And because they were never asked to remember it, they are doomed — and we are doomed by extension — to repeat the worst parts of history.

Black history month is not just about celebrating all the good we’ve done or the mountains of adversity we’ve climbed; it is a necessary function in society because it has the capacity to teach all of us something we’ve been deprived of.

Carter G. Woodson

Carter G. Woodson said this about the need for this month: “If a race has no history, it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated.”
If we don’t require remembrance, not just in our lives but everywhere, it won’t happen. The fight, as always, continues. But every February, we learn more, we educate more, we understand each other more. That kind of progress should always be our goal. That’s black America keeping up our end of the black history month bargain. We must force others to do the same.

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