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Do we really need a Black History Month?

It’s a common question. It might be a little more common coming from white folks like me, but I’ve certainly heard it from some African-Americans as well. A couple years back, for example, Stacey Dash weighed in on the subject for the benefit of the Fox viewer base. I hear views like that of Dash often enough. So, I blogged my own two cents worth of a response here. It was a short post, and rather sarcastic to be sure, but I still think that post about captures my sense of the issue. (Also it was an excuse to get a Leyla McCalla song onto my blog, which has to be a good thing.) Today, I thought it might be worth spelling out the point a little more directly.

Dash’s comments are hardly unusual. Time and again, you’ll hear someone gripe about the Latin American Music Awards, the Miss Black America Pageant, the existence of Black Entertainment Television, or any number of just-for-the-minority occasions, awards, and honors. In some cases, it’s hard to escape the impression that those making these comments just don’t like the ethnic groups in question and want them to go away. I somehow doubt that’s what Stacy Dash has in mind, but she’s probably not the sole example. Not every objection to minority-specific recognition can be fully understood as a conscious defense of white privilege.

As to latent prejudice, even against one’s own people, the jury is still out.

The most interesting case against such minority-focused honors, for me anyway, seems to to be the argument that they should not be necessary, and that minority-focused recognition is contrary to the spirit of a more unbiased community. Why set aside a specific month for black history, so the argument goes, when we should be incorporating elements of black history throughout the curriculum? Why have special awards for minorities when we should be including those minorities fully in the mainstream awards? Some might even suspect that Black History Month works to put the topic in a ghetto, so to speak, giving us leave to ignore the subject matter throughout the rest of the year. It may or may not work like that, but there does seem to be a certain merit to the notion that what we really out to be doing is ensuring that minorities are recognized when they ought to be recognized on a day-to-day basis, all year. Wouldn’t this be better than trying to set aside specific moments when this or that minority gets a spot of time under the spotlight?

Dash’s comments, like those of many who generate this argument, make a seamless transition from opposition to segregation to opposition to Black History Month, Black Entertainment Television, etc. Some of us might think these horribles (the segregation system of old versus Black History Month today) would weigh a little differently on the scale of man’s inhumanity to man, but that’s raising a question narratives like this simply don’t address. It’s a point of principle, Dash seems to suggest, and the same principle that forbids the one should forbid the other. Hence, the absence of minority-specific recognition becomes the price of freedom from segregation with all of the horrible things that that go with it. Shouldn’t we just approach these subjects in a color-blind way, she argue, and not show any preference at all?

Maybe it’s just my inner redneck, or at least my outer whiteness, but I have to admit this argument has a certain appeal for me. The appeal isn’t entirely self-serving. Sure, there is the notion that life might be simpler without having to deal with a specific month where folks pester me about covering African-Americans in my classes. That might be convenient. But along with that goes the notion that I really should sit down and work really hard to ensure that I am covering the subject adequately all year. Then I should do the same thing for Latinos, Native Americans, Women, the LGBT+ community, and any range of underprivileged peoples who may get squeezed out of the history books and the history lessons in one way or another. Theoretically, at any rate, these kinds of responses shouldn’t lead us to forget minorities; they should lead us to distribute credit more evenly, allocating it to minorities when they’ve earned it, or when the story demands it, just as we supposedly do to those in the majority. Doing that right would not be easy. In fact, it would be damned hard.

…and by ‘damned hard’ I mean, ‘probably not going to happen’.

The plan runs aground on the limitations of human nature. We don’t really have a universal standard for any kind of recognition, not beauty pageants, music or acting awards, journalism, or anything else for that matter. Certainly not history! We all look at questions of merit through the lens of our personal experiences, values, cultural background, etc. Thomas Jefferson doesn’t simply have a privileged role in our history books for reasons of abstract merit. Like it or not, he is also there for his contribution to institutions of white dominance. Frederick Douglas didn’t simply get into the history books because he reached some imaginary threshold of significance that deserves a paragraph or maybe even a page in a textbook. He got there because he made contributions to the present conditions of African Americans. His role in our history books is itself a function of special interests, and that should be neither surprising nor all that objectionable. It’s just how this works!

All of these stories are filtered through the lens of interests shaped by issues like race and gender today. Those who rise to the top of the mainstream narratives typically have some real advantages in the competition for our collective attention. They benefit from personal and institutional bias. Some of these biases are obvious, and some of them are subtle, but the point is that bias is bound to creep into decisions about who does and doesn’t have merit. This is as true of a historical personage as it is an artist or a contestant today.

When I try to put together the materials for a history class, I make any decisions about what to include, what to emphasize, and how to explain things to my students through the lens of my own personal experiences. Those include years of life in lily white neighborhoods talking to other middle class white people. They also include years of exposure to minority subjects in college classes and even more years working in Indian country and then the arctic. Plenty of my influences point me to the dead-white male version of history; others lead me to open that story up and include lots of other people. Whether or not the one is enough to counter-balance the others is always an open question.

My answer is better on some days than others.

Under the circumstances, I don’t think it’s such a bad thing to be reminded for one month out of every year that I might have missed something. There may be some stories about Aftican-Americans that I could and should get to my students somehow. I can’t say that the results always get into the February part of the curriculum, but I have certainly added African-American subject matter to my American history classes during the month of February. I don’t ignore these stories the rest of the year either, but the reminder certainly does nudge me toward a better balance.

More to the point, correcting bias isn’t simply a zen kinda thing. You can’t just sit there and be non-biased. As least I can’t. I’m human. My brain is subject to the same cognitive biases that I see quite readily in so many other people. So, if I just follow my first instincts (or even my first thoughts) on the subject of what to teach, I’m going to miss some things. I’m going to miss some people. I could wish otherwise, but it’s going to happen. So, somewhere in that process, I figure it’s worth it take a little time to think consciously and deliberately about those peoples who tend not to make it into the standard dead-white male narratives that still dominate so much of our common historical narratives. Whatever else, Black History Month does, it forces the issue, and it sets a number of teachers who might otherwise proceed blissfully onward to spend some time asking whether they’ve done enough.

The world would of course be better off if we didn’t need to go through such a process in the first place, if we could all be relied upon to handle minority subjects smoothly and evenly on the first pass.

But we don’t live in that world.

We never will.

Which brings me back to the imagination behind Stacy Dash’s opposition to Black History Month. The ideal she cites is compelling enough. It’s easy to say that we would all be better off without these special moments set aside for recognition of selected groups, but that only works if we imagine away the biases that make them necessary. The problem here is the notion that the ideal in this case will be achieved by eschewing the pro-minority agendas first. We may or may not get around to any sense of larger equality in due time, so the thinking goes, but as a point of personal integrity, we should all give up any effort to assign recognition to specific minorities before we can really expect movement on the larger issues. We have to forget Black History Month before we can be sufficiently color-blind to stop leaving black people out of our regular history lessons.

But that larger equality never comes. Like the communist state or the free market of Libertarian mythology, this world without prejudice just hangs out there somewhere in the ether. We can talk about it. We can imagine we are moving towards it, but it will never get here. In the interim, supposedly, the price of moving toward this ideal will be paid by those already on the short end of the stick. The first step toward that equality will be a sacrifice of what few breaks some folks have managed to gain at one point or another. The rest will come later. The big moment when we all judge each other by the content of our character sits somewhere on the other side of the moment we stop taking an extra beat to see who might have presently been left behind. But we’ll get there. Don’t worry!

…and the check is in the mail.