Yesterday, for those of you living in the United States and Canada at least, marked the first day of Black History Month. The month that celebrates us white people seriously studying the issues that face Black America officially ending our racism for the next eleven months until we do it all again the following year. At least, that’s what you’d believe happens if you listen to the main-stream media (which is not advised).
I’m joking, of course, most White Americans don’t pay attention to Black History Month, instead just using it as a means to complain that there is no White History Month and other such nonsense, assuming they pay it any mind in the first place. Of course, the idea of a “White History Month” makes about as much sense as a “National Association For The Advancement Of White People.” (Wait a minute, not only did that happen, but its founder, the infamous racist David Duke, spent many years as a household name and even held office in his home state of Louisiana.) However, the fact that we have these same arguments every February is a sign that maybe our current system isn’t working.
For those unaware, Black History Month first began as Negro History Week and was created by Black historian Carter Woodson in 1926, the same man who founded The Journal of Negro History (renamed The Journal of African American History in 2001) a decade earlier. Woodson, the second Black American to get a Ph.D. from Havard University, was known for his focus on digging up the history of Black Americans and bringing it into the public light. On this topic, he said:
If a race has no history, it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated. The American Indian left no continuous record. He did not appreciate the value of tradition; and where is he today? The Hebrew keenly appreciated the value of tradition, as is attested by the Bible itself. In spite of worldwide persecution, therefore, he is a great factor in our civilization.
(For those curious as to where “The American India” was at that point — Native Americans did not become citizens until 1924.)
Woodson made this a week in February, specifically the week of both Abraham Lincoln’s birthday (2/12) and Fredrick Douglas’s assumed birthday (2/14). I say “assumed birthday” because Douglas openly admitted he had no idea when he was born, even using this as an example of how slave owners steal the humanity of slaves in his famous 1845 work Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave.
The idea quickly grew in popularity and was basically the only pushback Black Americans had to ideas like the “lost cause” myth regarding the Civil War that became increasingly popular throughout the South. Then in 1969, Black Educators at Kent State proposed expanding the idea to an entire month, which started the following year before being officially recognized by President Gerald Ford in 1976.
Now I won’t deny the idea behind Black History Month was a good one. Black Americans have experienced many injustices throughout history that have commonly been overlooked, so dedicating a specific time of the year for looking into their history makes sense. For that matter, it’s easy to look at the mainstream teaching of history during that time period, especially in southern states, and come to the conclusion that we need a month dedicated to correcting misinformation. However, over the past several decades, the question of if the concept makes sense has been argued to death while the more important question, if it’s actually effective at teaching Americans Black history, has gone entirely unasked.
As mentioned above, one of the points of the original “Negro History Week” was to push back on the “lost cause of the South” idea regarding the Civil War. The idea was taught to generations of Southerns, who were all told the “war of Nothern aggression” was really about “states’ rights.” (The fact that the idea only gained popularity after the Confederacy surrendered is a good sign this view of history has some issues.) In order to promote this view, things like Joseph McCarthy style blacklists had to happen to works considered “unfair to the South.” Seriously, local librarians were told to write “unjust to the South” on books that failed to give “full justice to the South.” Organizations like the United Daughters of the Confederacy basically existed to make the “lost cause” idea the only one people in the Sough could read.
Now, obviously, it would be unfair to expect Black Americans to be able to fully pushback against this notion, especially considering the massive institutional power it had — however, if this was their attempt, it was a rather bad one. Even in 2021, sixteen states teach that “states’ rights” was one of the major causes of the Civil War. In 2011, it was found that more Americans believed “states' rights” to be the main cause than did slavery (48% to 38%). (For the record, if you’re talking specifically about the right of succession you’re technically correct, but the major reason why the first group of southern states left the Union was out of fear that the incoming president Abraham Lincoln would abolish slavery. In fact, on issues like nullification of federal law rather it be by state governments or by juries, the Abolitionists were much stronger advocates of “states’ rights” than the Confederates. Yes, in many ways the Abolitionists were much stronger supporters of an actual Confederacy than the Confederacy.)
However, some critics will consider it unfair to just cite the biggest racist lie and use that as evidence it is not working, and they aren’t wrong in that judgment — so let’s talk about two events: The Tulsa Massacre and Juneteenth.
For those unaware, the Tulsa Massacre (sometimes also called the Tulsa Race Riot) was an event that happened from 5/31/1921–6/1/1921 in the Greenwood District of Tulsa, Oklahoma. This specific district had been specifically organized for the purpose of segregation, although it later became so prosperous it became known as “The Negro Wall Street.” The exact event was done by white supremacists specifically for the purpose of keeping Black Americans in poverty and resulted in 36 deaths all but ten of which were of Black Americans.
Juneteenth, or 6/19, is in reference to 6/19/1865, when Union troops forced the emancipation of the last 2,000 slaves located in Galveston, Texas.
Both of these events came into public light in 2020 when then-President Donald Trump, at the height of Black Lives Matter protests in response to the death of George Floyd, held a rally in Tulsa on Juneteenth. During the speech, Trump went after the attempts to take down Confederate monuments across the country, saying:
The unhinged left-wing mob is trying to vandalize our history, desecrating our monuments, our beautiful monuments, tear down our statues and punish, cancel and persecute anyone who does not conform to their demands for absolute and total control, we’re not conforming.
So the President of the United States, on the day of emancipation, at the location where the only major group of successful Black Americans were murdered, gave a speech defending monuments for the Confederacy. The move was rightfully blasted as tone-death, however, it’s important to note just how little the average American knew about both of those events.
In the case of Juneteenth, a study from 2020 found that 48% of Americans were not aware of the holiday. As for Tulsa, it only gained a wider awareness because of an episode of HBO’s Watchman that focused on the event. Speaking personally, I was unable to believe that all my books contained no mention of the Tulsa Race Riots — and I was able to find one reference to it, a two-and-a-half page section on it in Kenneth C. Davis’s Don’t Know Much About History: Everything You Need To Know About American History But Never Learned. (Which is a great book, by the way, especially for those who are interested in United States history.) However, even Davis acknowledged just how rare even giving it that much coverage is:
For decades, the riot and killings were hushed up, kept alive only by the oral tradition of a few survivors. Only after nearly eighty years of silence did Tulsa and the Oklahoma legislature come to grips with the past.
While the people behind Black History Month surely had good intentions, the fact is Americans are simply not learning Black history. While I am not advocating for abolishing the month altogether, it is clear that if this is how we’ve been teaching Black History — it has not been working.
So what should we do? Well ideally, we’d be treating all forms of Black History as no different than the rest of American History, but it seems like that ship might have sailed. However, one of the biggest issues right now is that most Americans simply do not know their basic history. Study after study finds that most Americans don’t even know the mainstream bullshit the state wants them to learn — so how are they going to learn anything more? And you guys wonder why so many people think “erasing history” means one less statue of a Confederate general.
That’s my answer: Make it so our culture is more interested in studying history than it currently is, and if we do that, then learning about Black history would just be a natural part of that. I understand my answer will be dismissed by critics as idealistic, in large part because it is, however, it is the only solution to this issue.