I was strongly considering not writing anything on black history this month. I’m anti-Black History Month and find that its celebration generally serves to reinforce the miseducation of black youth that is perpetuated year-round in the American education system. Below, I attempt to explain how:
When black children are taught our histories in the American public school system, we are taught that historically black people were “just” slaves. We are taught that there are centuries of history where whiteness is doing all the things that humans do, building civilizations and commerce, establishing scientific law, creating art and philosophy, and our history, black history, begins with “just” slavery. Additionally, we learn that, were it not for this benevolent whiteness that would eventually spread across America and save us, we would have stayed poor unfortunate slaves.
On poor unfortunate slaves: Since our lineage begins at slavery, we are rarely, if ever, shown any proof of what blacks can accomplish outside of the influence whiteness. Our whole history is of white folks instructing us on what to do and how to be in every area from skilled trades, to language, to behavior, to spirituality. It is as if we were just these animalistic creatures wandering bison-like through the lush fields of Africa the Country™ until whiteness gathered us up and taught us how to be people. That sentiment doesn’t seem to have gone away, with even the best of “good” whiteness believing we just need more training & saving (see: “at-risk youth” programs**, voluntourism in Africa the Country™, and the American food justice movement***)
On history beginning at slavery: Speaking of lineage, teaching black folks nothing about our ancestors’ existence prior to slavery makes it far easier for us to believe that we haven’t accomplished anything as a group. This combined with the smattering of post-slavery black inventors that we are given to review during black history month leads us to believe that black ingenuity is a rare moment, occurring only in the most singular individuals, who are usually only building upon what whiteness has already accomplished. Pre-slavery innovations and the diverse cultures that made them are left out of white history completely or are degraded; after all how valuable of a culture can you have if you sold each other into slavery and/or were powerless, uncivilized, and unintelligent enough to be captured like animals?
The worst result of this truncated lesson is not even our sometimes lifelong ignorance of our origins, but the fact that when we finally do research our roots, we are looking at them through a lens of whiteness. We disregard the rich tribal pasts of the west African peoples most black Americans actually hail from in favor of tales of more prominent African empires like Nubia and Egypt because we need our Africa to be impressive in relation to the kingdom of whiteness. The lives, culture, spiritual practices and deities of out actual ancestors aren’t as important as proving that Africans, and by extension black Americans, are just as important, just as clever, and just as powerful as whites. The only problem is, we have already relinquished our power by letting whiteness decide what power looks like for us.
Furthermore, we feel content to know anything at all about Africa, because it’s all one place for white America and by extension, many of us. We apply all of their/our stereotypes to entire continent & we apply any history we learn to the entire continent, and by extension, to ourselves. In the end we’re left with a hodge-podge of languages, religions, histories, and colloquialisms to slap together into our identity (see: Kwanzaa) but little to no real connection with modern-day Africa or the billion-plus people occupying it’s 56 countries.
On “just” slavery: However, the degradation of our slave history in itself is a travesty as it completely disregards that slave labor built the United States & many other nations besides. The free forced labor of black bodies enabled America to become an international superpower in an incredibly short amount of time compared to similarly successful nations. Money from the slave trade made fledgling financial institutions (like Bank of America, Wells Fargo and JP Morgan Chase) into multi-million dollar conglomerates, funded this nations government buildings still in use today and constructed by black hands, created cities that draw people from all corners of the world, and supported America’s entire system of agricultural production, which was the cornerstone of the U.S. economy. Black slaves not only fed the nation but also, very literally, nursed each of the members of the most powerful white families from our breasts. The 1% lives because we lived. This is our country. It seems that the only work that white America did to make this country what it is involves figuring out new ways to control black people.
On the white savior complex: Allegedly, white folks eventually saved black slaves from the evils of slavery. Not all white folks of course, but the “good” white folks*. At any rate, we have been saved and there is this prevailing sentiment that we are this poor sniveling thankless being. How can we complain about whiteness when whiteness saved us?
It’s as though our freedom wasn’t simply a casualty of a war about something else (namely the south over-compensating for their dwindling power owing to a rapidly urbanizing north by seceding from the union).
It’s as though this can’t be a “both and” situation instead of “either or”. As if we conveniently don’t remember the very same people who allegedly fought for our freedom would later not want us living in their neighborhoods, or going to their schools, or working beside them.
Or even drinking water from the same spout they drank water from.
But as we know, this same savior would later give us a Black History Month but then refuse to explain why black history wasn’t just incorporated into the curriculum the rest of the year.
- The Colored Fountain
*I think this historic mental monument whites have erected in their hearts to commemorate the goodness of this historic (and fictitious) white savior is what makes them so eager to remind us that not all whites are bad. If they can somehow link themselves to these good whites, they can more readily absolve themselves of the guilt of their ancestors’ history of violence against us.
**The “at risk” label is bullshit in the way that it labels & stigmatizes youth in lieu of the system that leaves them in danger. More on that in a future essay.
***I have things (so many things) to say about the food justice movement in another essay as well, for those interested in an elaboration.