- - Thursday, January 29, 2015

I have a confession to make: I’m sick of Black History Month. 

There, I said it. There is a part of me that feels guilty saying it; as a black American and mother of two young children, I do find it difficult to ignore that little voice in the back of my head as I write those words. “Traitor,” it whispers in a voice not unlike the slimy Smigel from Lord of Rings.

It’s not that I have a disdain for black history. It’s not that I don’t feel there are many black Americans who deserve to be honored for their place in our nation’s history. I think what bothers me is that it’s 2015 and when it comes to black America there is still this sense of “otherness” about our culture. We’ve been a vital part of the American melting pot for centuries now, and still we are relegated to this “month of appreciation.” 

Don’t get me wrong. I believe it is very important to recognize the achievements of a culture that has been so instrumental in building this nation from it’s very founding. But every year at this time I find myself asking, “At what point do we just get to be a part of American History?”

Outside of slavery figures and Martin Luther King Jr., I don’t see a lot of talk about black American historical figures in the context of simply being important contributors to our nation’s development outside of race. I don’t ever get the feeling that this is done purposefully to exclude the myriad of black contributors. Rather, I think there’s almost a sense of “Hey, these figures will get their own month of celebration, they don’t need to be included in the day-to-day stuff of history class.”

Ultimately, that’s what bothers me. We get a month, and we most certainly make the most of that month. I appreciate that so many people find enrichment and pleasure in learning about black achievements and culture. And, yet, I do get weary of the same old figures being trotted out every February. 

I’ve had children in public school for the last 12 years. Every February I ask the same thing for about 20 days: “What did you learn about black history?” And every year it’s the same answer: Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman and, now, Barack Obama. Fine. These are accomplished people with impressive stories that all Americans should know, but how many times does my kid have to hear about Rosa Parks refusing to go to the back of the bus? In all seriousness, she knows that story by heart. She’s heard it over and over again at school, and while I’m happy for her to know and understand that story, isn’t it about time the school started diversifying their month of diversity celebration? Blacks of all nationalities (including American) have been in this country for hundreds of years. There’s no lack of figures to choose from.

I recognize all this grew out of the need to highlight our stories in a public school system that for too long was segregated and openly hostile to the black experience. We wanted to be considered a part of the fabric of America, and Black History Month was one path to get there, to merge us into the collective consciousness of American life. My problem is that somewhere along the way, instead of drawing us closer to that goal, the path actually has begun to swerve and move us farther from that goal. If the intention was to “normalize” our presence as Americans, it has now become something that marginalizes us anew. Schools and history books can justify skimming lightly over large swaths of black achievements throughout American history courses because all that gets done in February. 

In February we can remind everyone that black people have a history in this country too, and then we can all get back to “regular” life. I’m not comfortable with that. Our family includes white people and black people along many lines. When we gather together to share our lives and accomplishments you don’t hear anyone saying “The white people in our family did ABC,” and you certainly don’t hear “The black people in our family did XYZ.” Every person’s contribution to our family or their community is simply related on its own merits as just that — a contribution. Race doesn’t decide for us whose contribution is most notable.

That’s what I want to see for our community as a whole. We don’t need a special month set aside to remind other people of who we are. We’ve made our mark and then some. I think we’ve earned the right to stand shoulder to shoulder with whites and others in the annals of history as simply “Americans.”

We don’t need a month to talk about the civil rights movement. That event is every bit as American (and important) as the the American Revolution.

When students hear about the evolution of women’s rights, they shouldn’t just be learning about Susan B. Anthony and burning bras. They should simultaneously be hearing names like Madame C.J. Walker, the first female self-made millionaire in the country, and aviator Bessie Coleman, one of the few women in the early days of flight to hold an international pilot’s licence.

When it comes to the arts, alongside names like Mark Twain and Elvis Presley they should be hearing names like George Walker and Bert Williams — two men who changed the very popular “blackface performance” industry forever, with Williams going on to become one the highest paid theatrical performers of his era.

When it comes to science, alongside Benjamin Franklin and George Washington Carver (I guess his peanut thing gets him into the “regular” lessons) students should also be hearing about people like Garret Morgan — he invented the first traffic light and the gas mask.

Economists like Thomas Sowell belong in the everyday lessons of America’s schoolchildren. Our own magazine founder (the handsome, intelligent, generous, accomplished … did I mention generous?) Dr. Ben Carson most assuredly has earned a spot in daily American history courses as a groundbreaking neurosurgeon and leading physician. I mean, if being played by Cuba Gooding, Jr. in a television movie about your life doesn’t make you one of history’s leading figures, I don’t know what does!

There is no need to keep separating ourselves from American life and the collective American knowledge base. We have helped build this country, literally on our backs. We deserve to be considered as “Americans.” I know some people love to have our history highlighted every February, but I’m increasingly uncomfortable about how that one month seems to encourage ignoring our significant and lesser-known contributions throughout the rest of the year.

I think it’s time to start merging these paths again. Black Americans are not “special” … we’re Americans, and we’ve long since earned the right to be included as such in our national historical narratives.

Kira Davis is a blogger, stay-at-home mom and scotch enthusiast. Twitter: @KiraAynDavis


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