Today is February 1st, which means that it’s officially Black History Month. Every February for as far back as I can remember there has always been one person (almost exclusively white) to say something along the lines of “well, why isn’t there a white history month”. The standard response to this among almost everyone I know is “every month is white history month”. This argument is almost always sandwiched with the “Why isn’t there a WET” (a White Entertainment Television to compete with BET). While they started being said by kids in elementary school, recently I’ve noticed and increase in frequency in these sort of comments and a large diversity of the people who have said them.
The thing is, I could argue with someone until we’re both blue in the face, they’re unlikely to be willing to admit the disparity in representation of minorities in history, let alone on television, in film and as this blog is trying to point out, in books. So instead of talking about the validity and need for representation of minorities (because really, that’s the whole point of this blog isn’t it) I’m going to talk about U.S. History class. Every American child experiences it, the same topics, repeated year after year, starting with Columbus and ending, if you were lucky, the 1980’s Equal Rights Amendment, and if you weren’t, you ended up ending the year with Vietnam.
Christopher Columbus discovers America. This one isn’t even true, what actually happens is Christopher Columbus discovers Hispanola (the Island that makes up Haiti and the Dominican Republic), they force the Natives to mine for gold, when that fails and the native population starts to die, they begin importing slaves from Africa to harvest sugar cane and tobacco.
Next we usually got a bit of the Puritans, who fled England in search of Religious freedom. They brought with them diseases (syphilis and small pox among others – which I can’t really blame them for, they had no way of knowing), took land away from the Native Americans and forced many into slavery.
Slavery, this is usually talked about as quickly as possible and usually in the same breath as the emancipation proclamation. As a kid, I never realized that the first slaves were brought to North America in 1619 (Yes, that is 1619) and slavery lasted until 1864/5. Over two hundred years, and it’s barely a chapter in history books. Not to mention, they didn’t have email and text messaging back then, I’ve read some sources that said that many slaves didn’t know they were free until up to ten years later. In middle school and high school if you had a good teacher, you’d get some Reconstruction era discussions and even some Great Migration, but usually not.
After that you get Western expansion, the Louisiana Purchase, Railroads etc. There is always some mention of Chinese immigrants, but it’s always vague. If you were lucky and had a good professor you’d get some information on immigration restriction, but usually not.
Then you get into the wars, World War I, World War II. There’s little to know mention of the fact that there was still a segregated armed forces. Let me say that again, my Grandfather couldn’t serve in the same military as other World War II officers, simply because of the color of his skin. You’d have a teacher wax nostalgically (or in some cases with contempt) about Franklin D. Roosevelt and how it either 1) changed America for the better or 2) started America on its downward spiral. World War II always involved Pearl Harbor and Kamikaze soldiers, but very brief mentions of Japanese Internment camps such as Manzanar and it wasn’t until an English class my sophomore year did I know that the United States government forced lots of Japanese-American citizens to fight during World War II while there families were forced to live in horse stalls.
There is always a section on The Holocaust, but very little on the after effects of it, and it wasn’t until a ninth grade history book did I see the first mention of the Balfour Declaration.
Then, if the teacher timed it just right, just as February was approaching you got your dose of Black History. It was never in the proper historical sequence though, you’d get George Washington Carver and Booker T. Washington in the same chapter as Dr. Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks. The language used in these chapters always bothered me, very rarely did they actually discuss the racist vitriol that was being used. They never talked about the fact that people were spit on simply for daring to go to white school, or the deplorable conditions that “colored” facilities were often in. That was what people were taught in black history month, not about the Tuskegee Airmen, or all black firefighter units, or even about highly decorated African American military battalions (that were often given inadequate equipment and clothing). Don’t get me wrong, the Civil Rights Movement is one of the most important features in black history, but as a woman of color growing up being taught that African Americans were slaves, and then had the civil rights movement, and that was it.
I’m an adult now, I am able to go to my local library and check out any type of history book that exists, but because black history is relegated to one month out of the year I have to wonder how much of this history has been lost.
Happy Black History Month. Oh and I picked out a name for this project, Reading the Rainbow, thanks to one of my LJ friends.