Black History is America’s History

By: Shannon McNair

In case you didn’t know, it’s your American duty to celebrate ‘Black History Month’ (seriously, it’s a law). Thanks to Carter G. Woodson, in 1926, his suggestion that Americans celebrate the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln became a reality. Both men, one black and one white, changed the lives of enslaved and freed blacks alike. Fifty years later, in 1976, President Gerald Ford proclaimed, “Seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history”, and ‘Black History Month’ began.

These accomplishments are celebrated every February. We educate students each year on the black men and women who came before them. We assign book reports and retell stories about these courageous game changers; while reminding our youth that success comes in all forms. For 28 glorious days, our country recognizes black historical figures for their inventions, achievements, and their triumphs in overcoming adversity. But is that enough?

black history leadersAs a young girl, the stories of Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and Malcolm X were for me, equal parts inspirational and eye-opening. As an adult, who has the privilege of hindsight, the shortest month of the year (and more specifically, 20 school days) hardly seems to be enough time to summarize the entire history of one race. Especially, when that history focuses heavily on the stories that are the easiest to tell. No shade to the aforementioned legends, their sacrifices gave black people power in ways that can hardly be described in words. However, I’ve often wondered why, in 2018, we feel the need to cram these important milestones into such a small window.

A new report released by the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance project points to the overwhelming failure of educators to accurately teach the hard and nuanced history of American slavery. Furthermore, the report finds that slavery is often mischaracterized, mistaught, sentimentalized, and sanitized. Students understanding has been left incredibly below par, and modern-day issues of race and racism completely misunderstood. This is a problem, not just for the obvious reasons, but because of the disservice it does to our society as a whole.

I believe that, in part, America’s lack of education on America’s history has led us directly to where we are today. Our country feels as divided as ever, and racial tensions are peaking in a way that we haven’t seen since the 60s. Instead of taking the time to educate and inform one another, we’re somewhere stuck between, “that’s not how it happened”, “get over it”, and “if you would just take a second to understand”. Taking the time to learn how racial bias happens and how systemic injustices started, are the only ways to truly fix the problems plaguing our communities today. If we want to resolve the disparities that lead to 5 times as many blacks in our prisons than whites or increase high school graduation rates for young black kids, we need to understand how we got here and listen to these communities tell us what they require to be successful. They don’t need a handout–but a level playing field, and people of different backgrounds to care.

Ibram X. Kendi, a writer for the New York Times, recently wrote, “The Heartbeat of Racism is Denial”. In this piece, he speaks about our President’s attempts at “unity”, just not in the way that you think.

“Mr. Trump appears to be unifying America — unifying Americans in their denial. The more racist Mr. Trump sounds, the more Trump country denies his racism, and the more his opponents look away from their own racism to brand Trump country as racist. Through it all, America remains a unified country of denial.”

I can only wonder about the education President Trump received growing up that lead to comments like, “shithole countries”. He was 17-years-old at the time of Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, but maybe he skipped the broadcast and has simply chosen to ignore the words that were so eloquently spoken. From what I can see, his divisiveness comes from a place of willful ignorance, and it would be remiss to pretend that in the next 3 years will change that. Hopefully, America’s next leader takes the time to wade through the muddy waters because they understand that, “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” – Abraham Lincoln

While the dark and dirty truth of America’s past may make us uncomfortable, black American history is all of our history. Denying or ignoring that truth is not only dangerous but it also directly impacts our youth’s ability to flourish. The hatred and division we see today is becoming the history of tomorrow. And, if we have any pride in what that looks like, we need to celebrate the successes of Americans, of all colors, 365 days a year. Only then, will future generations see themselves as the shapers of history.

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Shannon was born in Pittsburgh, PA but calls Chicago home, despite moving to San Francisco in the summer of 2016. She joined DiveIn after working as the Customer Success Manager for an early stage startup focused on improving the payment experience for both clients and mental health professionals; onboarding nearly 1,000 new customers in 45 states. In her spare time, Shannon serves as a volunteer Court Appointed Special Advocate for a youth in the foster care system with the San Francisco branch of the national CASA organization. Shannon is also a die hard Steelers fan and a relentless “pusher” in mobilizing her peers to get involved in their communities. To keep up with Shannon, you can follow her on twitter.