By Amber James, Harvard JD/MBA Class of 2019
I hate Black History Month. I love black people, and I love history, but I hate Black History Month. The very concept is offensive.
Black history is American history. The America of today never could have existed were it not for the black people of African origin whose blood, sweat and tears involuntarily built this country. America was catapulted toward its current position as a “Global Superpower” by centuries of stolen free labor. America’s crops were farmed and produced first by slaves, then by sharecroppers who subsisted under a comparably exploitative system. America’s railroads were largely built by chain gangs, comprised of black men who had been kidnapped by dubious “Negro catchers.” Even America’s music, from Jazz to Blues to Rock & Roll to Hip Hop, has been heavily influenced by, if not invented by and stolen from, black artists. The notion that the recognition of black history deserves one month per year, while the remainder of American history (i.e., white American history) is studied and celebrated year-round, frankly is insulting.
Moreover, having one black history month reinforces the notion that “black history” somehow is exceptional, different, separate. If it’s not mainstream, it’s on the margins, and thus easily marginalized. Every February, black people are reduced to singular firsts – George Washington Carver, the first black inventor; Jackie Robinson, the first black professional baseball player; Misty Copeland, the first black principal dancer at the American Ballet Theater; Barack Hussein Obama, the first black President of the United States.
Instead of having one black history month annually, shouldn’t we celebrate accurate, honest and fulsome American history all year round? Shouldn’t we stop omitting the horrors of slavery from the curriculum about the Civil War? Shouldn’t we acknowledge the lynchings and beheadings of thousands of free black men in the Jim Crow South, as we rightfully condemn terrorists for the beheadings and other atrocities they commit abroad? Shouldn’t we recognize that, while our black President resides in the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue, unarmed black men, women and children are killed in the streets by law enforcement officials at alarmingly, disproportionately high rates? Shouldn’t we lament that, because politicians in Michigan decided $100 per day was too much to spend on clean drinking water, a generation of black children and families in Flint have been irreparably and systemically poisoned by their state, in a crisis that is effectively a modern day economic genocide?
Black history is interwoven throughout the fabric of the America we know and love. It deserves so much more recognition than mentioning a few black champions in February, then forgetting them (and the rest of us) the remainder of the year. So, instead of simply celebrating Sidney Poitier and the other first blacks in history to win Oscars, next month let’s be outraged by the fact that, in 2015 and 2016, zero black people were nominated for Academy Awards, even though their white co-stars received multiple nominations. Instead of simply quoting Dr. King and sharing photos of sit-ins and bus boycotts this month, let’s also support the activists orchestrating Black Lives Matter, our generation’s Civil Rights Movement, as they peacefully protest in malls and college campuses and highways across the country, all year round.
The struggle for racial equality in all facets of American life isn’t over. Until it is, I concede that celebrating Black History Month will have merit, notwithstanding that it is a token recognition. However, though one month is better than nothing, it is simply not enough to settle for in 2016.