A good friend asked me yesterday why are African-Americans the ones who get to have a Black History Month. Why not a Korean History Month or an Iranian History Month? Her question was sincere and probably common, so I thought today’s blog would be a brief explanation for the rationale behind ideas like Black History Month. Let me preface this by saying that I’m a lily white hillbilly from East Tennessee, hardly an expert on the African-American experience, but my mentor in graduate school was Dr. Reginald Martin. He is an expert on the subject and taught me quite a bit.
First and foremost, the difference between African-Americans and every other group in this country is that they are the only ones who were brought here exclusively against their will. Virtually every other group of people in this nation made a choice to cross the ocean and come here to begin a new life. Africans were captured, taken from their homelands, stuffed into the hulls of ships, sold on an auction block like cattle, and held as slaves until their deaths. There were laws on the books that stated that having African blood meant a person was less than a full person. It was illegal, under punishment of death, to teach a slave to read and write. While other ethnic groups fled persecution in their homelands, African-Americans were brought here for the purpose of persecution. Other than Native Americans, no other group was treated as inhumanely and with so little dignity, and that is the primary distinction between African-American history and Korean-American history, for example.
After “slavery” ended, for 100 years, African-Americans were segregated from white society. In many places, it was illegal for a black person to eat in the same establishment as a white person. Black men could be lynched just for looking at a white woman. During that 100 years, African-American soldiers went to war, served their country, often earned the respect of white soldiers, rose in rank in the military but then returned home only to be greeted, not as heroes, but as second-class citizens. African-American men, regardless of age or social standing, were referred to as “boy” by white men of all ages. That particular word still evokes strong emotions from black men.
During the 400 years of slavery and the subsequent 100 years of segregation, white scholars often disavowed historical achievements by black people. My generation was the first to be taught that peanut butter, potato chips, and traffic lights were all invented by African-Americans. Before that, those facts were ignored and left out of American history. How many of my readers have even heard of Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, or Benjamin Banneker? Each of these men had a profound effect on American history, but for well over a century their contributions were not mentioned in history textbooks.
The spirit behind Black History Month is not to segregate African-American history from white history. Rather, the intent is to highlight historical figures who have not received adequate credit in mainstream history. If racism and segregation were dead, I would concede that Black History Month has outlived its purpose, but the upswell of hate since Mr. Obama’s election proves that racism is very much alive. While I personally had nothing to do with slavery or segregation, my country did, and until the day comes when hate and bigotry have been extinguished from human consciousness (I am not so naive as to think that will happen anytime soon but I am still hopeful that maybe one day), we need things like Black History Month to illustrate contributions from African-Americans that can dispel the myth that black people are brutish and incapable of complex cognitive functions.
Personally, I promote the notion that we should also have a Native American History Month because mainstream history has been very unkind and inaccurate in the depictions of the native cultures of this continent before Europeans arrived, but that is another topic for another day.
On a side note and as a shameless plug for my series, The Brotherhood of Dwarves uses American slavery and racial tension as the backdrop for the series. Many of my depictions of the orc plantations are from Frederick Douglass’ autobiographical depictions of his childhood as a slave.