Why We Need Black History Month

Every year when February 1st rolls around and people remember that it’s Black History Month, people start to question why it exists. In the same breath, some people start to wonder aloud why there is no White History Month. In a society that is incrementally moving toward an equal footing for all, why are we singling out black people for special consideration? The short answer doesn’t exist, and the real answer is a little complicated.

Firstly there’s the matter of general hostility towards the celebration of black leaders, authors, artists (et. al). It’s likely there exists some fringe elements that genuinely want a White History Month, and some smaller subset wants this month so they can wear swastikas and march down the street extolling the virtues of racial purity. People have refused to recognize Martin Luther King Jr day across the nation in the past, and Black History Month still struggles to maintain legitimacy as part of the legacy of American history.

But most of the argument seems to stem from an ignorance about Black History Month and a fractured view of equality. People have declared that not having a White History Month is reverse racism, that they are somehow being denied the ability to celebrate their heritage. Another more insidious position is that there is no longer a need for Black History Month.

Stacey Dash

Stacey Dash

The argument for “equality” achieved through either a complimentary White History Month, or by dismantling Black History Month and weaving that material throughout the rest of American history courses seems appealing. The latter would even be ideal, as the contributions of all members of American society would be recognized and even represent the true equality Martin Luther King sought and others continue to seek. However what many are arguing in for is not equality.

This is the psuedo-equality that resides in the phrase “All lives matter.” It’s the psuedo-equality that Fox News host Stacey Dash says we should practice by eliminating BET, and Black History Month. A similar sentiment says that black actors should just get better roles, and provide better performances if they want to win Academy Awards while directors and producers cast mostly white people in fantasy films based in African culture.

When so little of our attention is directed toward issues of racial equality it seems like an insult to suggest that one of the few celebrations of the black influence on society isn’t necessary anymore. The arguments that white people aren’t allowed to celebrate while black people are isn’t about equality, it’s about privilege. The white male is the default for our media, for our representations and our expectations. Representation in media, and in the general discourse, is why we need #BlackLivesMatter. They matter because police brutality is expected for black people, both by black people and white people; because the victims “are no angels,” an impossible standard to achieve for anyone, and even more impossible for young black men.

Idris Elba

Idris Elba

Idris Elba cast as Heimdall

Idris Elba cast as Heimdall

White people generally hold positions of privilege in society, but not having a White History Month isn’t an attack on white heritage. Celebrating black history doesn’t mean that people are denigrating the history of other peoples in America, including the those of European descent in this country. Saying that black lives matter doesn’t mean white lives don’t; it means let’s have a conversation about ongoing oppression and inequality in this country. Why aren’t white people allowed to celebrate? Largely it’s because white people are celebrated in small ways every day, even if that celebration is getting a warning instead of a ticket, or a ticket instead of being shot. In that sense, it’s necessary to continue celebrating Black History Month.

There must be a space for representations of black figures, because young black people are not seeing black heroes in their movies. People lost their minds when Idris Elba was cast as Heimdall in Thor. You can imagine the uproar if they tried to cast black actors as Spiderman or Superman.

So Black History Month helps facilitate representation. But that’s not all it does. It reminds us of some of the most repulsive parts of American history: chattel slavery in the land of the free. It reminds us that the police and bystanders in the south beat, shot and hanged people that were trying to vote, sit at lunch counters, or go to school. In examining the civil rights movement at the time, we are able to see a concrete example of real change. Where oppression gave way to freedom, and segregation gave way to integration.

But the civil rights movement didn’t end. Civil rights is an ongoing process, and stewardship over the advances won is entirely necessary to make sure those advances are not rolled back. Some of those advances are being de-facto rolled back through the use of voter ID laws, which sounds good on the surface, and mask the more insidious intent of making it harder for certain American citizens to vote.

The civil rights movement never ended for Martin Luther King Jr. Once the battle for desegregation was won, he began to examine the other, underlying issues he saw: primarily the economic inequality working as a functional oppression of all people, and black people in particular. Speaking at an AFL-CIO trade union convention in 1961 [PDF], Martin Luther King spoke of the interconnected nature of the struggles of labor, and the struggles of black people.

“Our needs are identical with labor’s needs: decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old-age security, health and welfare measures, conditions in which families can grow, have education for their children, and respect in the community. That is why Negroes support labor’s demands and fight laws which curb labor. That is why the labor-hater and labor-baiter is virtually always a twin-headed creature spewing anti-Negro epithets from one mouth and anti-labor propaganda from the other mouth.”

Michael “Killer Mike” Render

Michael “Killer Mike” Render

It’s a cast iron example of a radical position. But we rarely hear about this part of Martin Luther King’s work. Black History Month should not be a static assessment of the past as we wish it had happened. King’s stance against segregation is untouchable, as segregation is now untenable in modern society. People wouldn’t stand for it. But we stand for economic segregation every day, and have no problem defending it, through policies, politics, and opinions. Black History Month is the study of revolution, but we seem to forget that the struggle for civil rights doesn’t end.

Activist and rapper Michael “Killer Mike” Render notes that Martin Luther King, in the wider context of Black History Month has been sanitized.

“We have been given a pretty little compartment to put Dr. King in that says ‘No matter how much you hurt, no matter how much we stigmatize you, no matter how much we traumatize you, we beat you […] As radical as you can go is non-violence’ and that’s about where it is. It never talks about the social justice aspect of Dr. King.”

And the social justice aspect of Black History Month is perhaps its most important function. We are, and should be, forced  to confront injustice in American society, particularly economic injustice. We see examples of economic injustice affecting minority populations all the time. Black and Latino populations in America were vastly overrepresented when it came to subprime lending. Having a “Black” name can cost you a job opportunity. Since the financial crash of 2008 and the ensuing recession, the wealth gap has been widening in America, and it has been widening along racial lines.

Senator Bernie Sanders, during a discussion with Killer Mike, Cornell West, and former senator Nina Turner, notes that King’s influence did not stop when desegregation was won, and his push for workers rights was for all Americans.

“What was [King] doing in the last months of his life? He was organizing the poor people’s march; of African-Americans, of poor whites, of Latinos, of native-Americans. He was marching on Washington to say ‘You can not forget about us.’ […] He never stopped. He understood the interconnectedness of everything, and he kept going forward.”

Black History Month stands alone among other cultural celebrations in the U.S. because it’s not a joyous celebration of beer, or food, or gifts. It holds a mirror up to the dark heart of the past, and presents us an unflinching view of ourselves. And it continues to do so to this day, by reminding us that there is not equal protection under the law for all residents and citizens of this country. There are a myriad of injustices still present in this country, and a great deal of them stem from institutional policies are designed to keep certain people in their place.

So don’t pretend that it’s unfair that there isn’t a White History Month. Don’t pretend that we live in a post racial America, when some of us are more equal than others because of the color of our skin or the weight of our wallets. Black History Month shows us that the fight for civil rights is tumultuous, it is long, it is painful, and it is never ending. But it shows us that a victory can be won, and that through dedication the next level of equality can be reached. Let black history ring.

Image Credits: Jeffrey Pott
David McGirr

David McGirr

David McGirr is a freelance writer, storyteller, media analyst and Irish immigrant documenting his experience of American culture.
David McGirr

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  • http://katethesape.wordpress.com K.M. Cone

    So say we all. Well done.