the Empathy List #98: What is Black History Month for?
Tokenism vs. Representation
Hello friends, Liz here.
This month is Black History month.
On the socials, I’ve heard a variety of views on this national holiday as folks reckon with the cost and privilege(?) of being “included.”
They wonder, is the one-time inclusion of brown bodies mere performance or a shift in cultural norms? Is it safe to see it as a celebration, stemming from genuine curiosity and openness toward difference in our society? Or is it foolishness to hope for change? How can we tell the difference between tokenism and representation?
I hear the pain that undergirds these questions.
It makes SO MUCH sense that some black Americans have decided that Black History month is THE WORST and that it’s a month solely devoted to assuaging white guilt, a way of performing allyship without any ACTUAL change to accompany the marketing.
In this view, the history of Black America—and thereby, Black Americans themselves—becomes a tool, much like Jesus became a tool in the recent Superbowl ad that got so many of us Christians grumbling, the 1 billion dollar PR campaign for Jesus. (Let’s get the Son of God a rebrand, amiright???)
The reality of the month versus what this month could be is stark, as examining the history of the holiday shows.
I started wondering, what did this month set out to be and do? Where and who did Black History month come from? And what does it actually stand for today?
Note: I do not want to presume to be the authority on this topic BY ANY MEANS. You’re welcome to tell me I’m wrong, to share different opinions, to point out any faults in logic.
If you’re curious, however, where I got some of my ideas, follow the links, and also read this essay by someone much more experienced and wiser than I am who makes the case for the continuance of Black History month, and I agree with him.
The history of Black History month begins with Dr. Carter G. Woodson, a black Harvard-educated historian (educated at the college in the same era as W.E.B. DuBois). In the early 1900s, Dr. Woodson took on the task of establishing the discipline of historical inquiry into the achievements and lives of African Americans, kicking off the first Negro history week in February 1926. His aim was to highlight the hidden stories of black Americans, showcasing their genius, creativity, resiliency, and joys, to assert the true narrative of his people and to bury the false.
Martha Jones, a professor of history at Johns Hopkins University and the Society of Black Alumni Presidential Professor, explains:
“There’s no question that history is and continues to be a battleground. The origin stories that we tell matter a great deal for where we set the bar and how we set the bar going forward. So when you talk about people like Carter G. Woodson, these are men who knew that if you don’t rewrite the history of Africans and people of African descent, if you don’t rewrite the history of the United States through the lens of Black history, if you don’t make that record and if you don’t make that case, there are [false] stories that will expand and go toward rationalizing and perpetuating racism, exclusion, marginalization and more.”
(Read the entire story of how Black History month came to be in this interactive NYT article.)
In Dr. Woodson’s own words, “If a race has no history, if it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated.”
Dr. Woodson’s determination across decades brought the day into the majority culture’s calendar. Yet he did not do this for the sake of white America but because he wanted to teach his own people their history.
Black History month—surprise!—was not about white people, but about offering glory back to black and brown people.
However, Dr. Woodson also recognized that the majority narrative will always prevail. So he having a designated month of recognition was one way of moving stories from the margin back into the central historical narrative.
You might say, sure, that’s the history, but we’ve come along way from that. What is Black history month good for now?