Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Oh God, its Black History Month Again

Ah, here we are again: the dreaded BHM: Black History Month.

On the one hand, I just hate Black History Month. On the other, I love it and support it.


There are two things that always serve to remind me that sometimes it’s a real pain in the ass to be “overly trained” in history.

The first is when I’m in a beer and shot joint in the Northwoods of Wisconsin and someone says “Oh, Maureen’s a historian” and some dolt wearing a John Deere cap with fishing lures hanging off of it and a t-shirt that says “My Country, Love it or Leave It” decides to belly up to my bar stool and ask me “So, a historian lady, huh? Betcha’ don’t know how many Jap cruisers were in the Battle for Leyte” or (my personal favorite for its amazing historical relevance) “Betcha’ can’t name Hitler’s favorite pet dog.”

Betch’yer right.

Fortunately, the need to sit in a bar waiting for a table for a Friday night fish fry up in the bowels of the Northwoods is not much of a re-occurring problem in my life.

Black History Month, however, is.

Well, let me rephrase that: the real problem is the abiding endurance of this particular question:

Why isn’t there a White History Month?

Like all clouds, this one does have a silver lining: it tells me more about the person posing the question that I might otherwise learn over a very long period of time.

The very question is snarky in extremis.

I can take that question and work a crowd of 100 white people and within a half hour have a damn good idea about the company I’m keeping.

That fact aside, let me state once and for all why there is no bona fide* White History Month:

Because white people have the other 11 months of the year.

Well, not really; that’s just my snarky reply to their snarky question but here’s the real deal:

The entire written historical record in the West, until very recently when history became professionalized, has been written by the dominant people holding power. In the entire history of Western Civilization, people of color have never held power – with the possible exception of the Moors’ control of the Iberian Peninsula a long, long time ago.

But it’s not only people of color who haven’t held power.  It’s also been women and other very often oppressed groups.

I’m not assigning blame to anyone here – it just is what it is, OK?

Deal with it.

That said, oppression alone isn’t why society or groups may recognize a need to carve out public recognition for a particular ethnic, racial, cultural, or religious people. No, sometimes other purposes are also served by these designations. Public education and civic gratitude are two of them; others are to help foster a sense of self-worth and well deserved pride.

More on this subject over the coming days.
*I don’t consider Facebook sites dedicated to White History Month bona fide. If you have to ask me why – don’t bother.


  1. This is interesting, Maureen. Off the bat, I have to disclose that I am not an American of any colour and so I am coming to this discussion very much as an outsider looking in, but it does seem (in a 'oh if only this were a perfect world' kind of way) that it is a shame that there cannot just be a 'history month' dedicated to the accurate and unbiased study of what, who, when and why your country, indeed the whole damn world, has grown into the wonderful and sometimes sorrowful place is is today. But alas the goose has already been cooked there, i'm afraid.

    Of course, I can see the value of value of such a month of reflection and celebration of a side of history that has all to often been belittled, amended, crossed out and washed over so many times in the past, but naturally it gives ammunition to that group of people who through either ignorance or just plain douche-baggery prefer to act as though *they* are the oppressed minority that has been subjugated so consistently over the years, just because they don't get their own special day! It's amazing how petty and insecure the world can be sometimes.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Luke. You're a Canadian, right? I'll have to do some research but off the top of my head I don't think your country had slavery; if so, it must have been ended very early b/c England banned it sometime around 1830-40 I believe. You certainly didn't have a civil war over it. We're still working out the legacy of our many sins. That said, however, it's not really about addressing past grievances or trying yet one more way to achieve tolerance. I see it as a way to just get people to think maybe they weren't given the full story in school and it might be nice to look at the topic again for more insight. But there are other months dedicated to minorities and I'll write about those months too. I think it's a very good thing and it's only divisive in the minds of people who were already "divided" to begin with. It's like the Bible; you get out of it what's already in your heart.

  3. Interesting post. Here's my opinion.

    I love history. I think it's important to know. I know a lot about Western (White History) Civilization. I've studied Greece, Rome, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Age of Enlightenment, and modern history. I like to think I know a lot about it. If you gave me a map of Europe I could fill in all countries - no problem (Yes, yes, I do know that's Geography, not history).

    Here's the thing: If you gave me (or most Americans) a map of Africa, and told them to fill out the countries I bet you most would be hard pressed to get past Egypt and South Africa. Some people might even think Africa is a country (cough, sarah... sorry I'm not trying to be political). My point is this - Most people don't know very much about black history.

    So for the people who oppose (but LOVE to talk about) Black History Month and how there's no White History Month, let's all agree on this: There's bigger problems in the world than complaining about encouraging students (and people) to learn about a part of history they most likely know nothing about - some might even think it's a good thing.

  4. Thank you Austin; great reply! I love you for loving history! Here you are with all your wonderful knowledge about Western Civ, from ancient to modern, and yet you admit you couldn't fill in a map of Africa with any competency, although you say you could do the same for Europe. The African continent is the world's second largest (Asia the first) and Europe only the sixth and Africa is home to civilizations that predate Rome and Greece. It played a role in all of Western history and does so today.

    I looked at your profile and see you're a Canadian; assuming that's where you've grown up, I guess I can infer further that the folks who assembled the history books in your country didn't do any better than in the States.

    Thanks for letting us know that you think learning BHM is a good thing.

    Can you tell us how your country has recorded the history of your indigenous peoples? What's your opinion about that?

    And finally, don't worry about ever being "political" -- not here anyway! The WCA loves political commentary!

  5. I'm actually from Chicago. I moved to Canada (for various reasons).

    To be honest, I don't think any western country has done a great job of teaching about African History. I did take one class (an elective) at the University of Illinois - Chicago about African History and I did learn a lot.

    Unfortunately I've forgotten a lot of what I was taught in that class. Learning takes repetition. Just being exposed to something once doesn't cut it for most people (including me). That's why I like having Black History Month - It's yearly exposure to something I could benefit from knowing more about.

  6. Well, you're a Chitowner! Southside? Northside? 'Burbs? UIC has a good history dept; one of the best in the world in labor history too. I'm sure there are many good reasons to move to Canada. Frankly, I was going to move if McCain/Palin won. I still have my bags packed; you never know. :)

  7. I live in Canada, Maureen, but i'm actually Australian, so I'm even further removed than you might think!

    I agree with Austin: black history, culture, hell even geography, is often vetoed in western schools and society. I studied law at university and until I took an elective class on indigenous studies and law I knew little about Australian indigenous culture apart from their pretty paintings and socio-economic disparities.

    I think there is a great opportunity for our educators to change their focus slightly so our kids today can grow up with a more accurate and fair sense of history and leave school with a much more balanced view of every groups involvement. As Austin says, you learn by repetition, and what you pick up in school stays with you for a long time. Once this happens the need for a BHM at all to raise awareness might be gloriously superfluous. I'm not holding my breath, however.

  8. I know this wasn't the point of your post, but I laughed so hard at the part about the guy in the Northwoods of Wisconsin. Many years ago, I had a handful of them call me names (let's go with "uppity bitch" and the understanding that that's the polite version...LOL) when in the exact same scenario as you're talking about. It probably didn't help that I whooped one or two of their butts at darts. Hahaha! Ah, thanks for the memory!

    You wouldn't think Sheboygan, Wisconsin, which is pretty much the same as the backwoods only with a larger, denser population, would have had an inclusionist world history perspective. As it happened, one of my high school social studies classes included a large unit on Africa, and we did get tested on being able to label each country in the continent on a map. I couldn't do it now, though, simply because so many of them have had political upheaval and changed their names. But I remember little things, like the Cote d'Ivoire being slightly above the little crook on the west side of the continent, and a few things like that.

    At any rate, I love your snarky response to that question. I may have to use that sometime.