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Lee: Why we need Black History Month

BY ASHLEY LEE | FEBRUARY 07, 2014 5:00 AM

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Whenever someone asks, “Why is there no white history month?,” I’d like to think they’re joking. But to many, it’s a legitimate question.

Sure, there are holidays and months for certain ethnic groups that identify as white, but nothing explicitly coined “White History Month.” Often such points are made to question the necessity of singling out a group during Black History Month.

But Black History Month remains vital to American historical education. There are many races, cultures, and ethnicities that make up this nation, yet as I reflect on my public education, U.S. history at its most accessible level is primarily written from a white colonial perspective.

Because of the prevalence of this point of view, history education often minimizes the experiences of the colonized. Textbooks may include slavery and genocide, internment camps, farm-worker oppression, and the civil-rights movement, but we learn very little about the way of life and achievements made by people of color outside of the context of anti-racism movements.

For instance, Madame C.J. Walker was the first woman self-made millionaire, regardless of race. W.E.B. DuBois was the first African American to obtain a Ph.D. from Harvard. Playwright August Wilson portrayed a 1950s African-American family amid white American prosperity in Fences. Such influential people of color often go unnoticed in typical histories of America.
Many other questions go unanswered as well. How was black life during the Industrial Revolution? What was it like for African Americans during the Great Depression?

Such questions are rarely dealt with in history classes and, as a result, many Americans, black people included, are ignorant of African American history.

That’s why we need Black History Month.

“Black History Month is still needed because people wouldn’t celebrate black history,” UI student Brittney Reed said.

The month encourages people to recognize the positive contributions African Americans have made to this country, regardless of the pre-conceived notions Americans already internalize about blackness and the “black culture.”

“If you ever notice when we were in grade school, black history was only a chapter or a few pages, and that was it. They marginalize our existence in history. The African-American experience needs to be throughout the history books,” student Judge Brooks said. According to him, Black History Month isn’t enough.

He then offered a solution. “I feel that African-American studies courses should be offered in high school. Just like you can take psychology as an elective, you should be able to take African-American studies classes.”

Black History Month stresses the importance of black history, but is also meant to encourage people to study black history on their own throughout the entire year.

To study the African-American diaspora is to understand what makes African Americans so unique compared with other racial and ethnic groups. In a nation that once dehumanized us, we are able to take ownership of our identity. Much of our ancestry is lost in the institution of slavery. The vestiges of that reality, coupled with our race, are what bind us together. February is just one of many ways we can celebrate that.  

Until our education system becomes more integrated — until the differing perspectives of black people are included in the teaching of U.S. history that traditionally focuses on white perspectives — African American history month must remain.


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