Inevitably, when February rolls around, there is that person who proclaims the old adage, “Why do black people get a month? If white people celebrated their own month, there would be hell to pay.”
In fact, person blinded by whiteness, there has been hell to pay. From the year 1619, when the first ship brought slaves to the colonies, there has been a celebration of white dominance. Faces of our white male ancestry are blasted into a mountainside in South Dakota, they’re printed on our currency, and they’re responsible for convincing us that the conquest of American soil was noble. Calculating from the date slaves first stepped on colonial ground, we have celebrated 4,788 months of white history (minus the handful of decades the month of February has been set aside). Call me unpatriotic, but having black faces on the front lines of our Revolutionary War fighting for a white man’s freedom sounds like the most cowardice act I can fathom.
“Why can’t we just put this all behind us and act as equals?” asks the white moderate. Here’s why: the Emancipation Proclamation ended slavery in 1863, and a century later, black folks were still trying to integrate into schools and society in general. This is mind-boggling—a century later still being treated as sub-human. By 1963, approximately a decade after the Supreme Court ruled that schools be integrated with “all deliberate speed”, only 9 percent of black children were attending integrated schools in the south (King 5). Equal education and job opportunities were not afforded to this community, so why do we expect (at a mere fifty-some-odd years later) for us to be able to put this all behind us? In his book, Why We Can’t Wait, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. explained it truthfully and painfully. Regarding black folks in Birmingham in the 60’s, he wrote:
When he seeks opportunity, he is told, in effect, to lift himself by his own bootstraps, advice which does not take into account the fact that he is barefoot.
Not only is it essential that Black History Month exist, it is essential that white folks take the opportunity to learn why it exists. It’s not only a time for the black community to revel in its resilience and marvel at its future, it’s a time for white communities to take a backseat (for once—dare I add—and for all).
I’m speaking from experience. Curriculum sugarcoats this dark era of history. I’ve had to do my own research to truly learn about the repercussions of slavery. I’ve learned by reading MLK’s words. He’s one of the most brave, humble, articulate, intelligent figure in our history, yet his work is glossed over as completed. To a lot of people, racism is over because slavery is over. No more segregation, no more prejudice. In fact, we have just devised a “fancier” version of slavery/racism that struts around in guise of law. So for my white friends, here are a few (watered down) lessons we can learn from this modern day bondage called systemic racism. One things leads to another.
Economic discrimination— In the early 1900’s home loans were backed by the government for (you guessed it) only white people. This forced the black community into the land leftover, the “ghettos”. This was called Red-Lining. Black families couldn’t build capital or inherit property, they were isolated from adequate food sources.
But hey, a good education can pull anyone out of the ghetto! (See below)
School Segregation— As mentioned above, black children were denied the same quality of education as white children even as recent as the 1960s. One of my parents was born in the 60s. This is not ancient history.
But hey, manual labor doesn’t require education! (See below)
Poor Jobs— Manual labor in the black community was not adequately compensated. Not to mention the fact that “white sounding” names on an application were more likely to be chosen.
But hey, keep trying! (See below)
Mass Incarceration— When prisons became money-making machines, they filled their cells at an alarming rate. A defense lawyer I know told me that during her time as a practicing attorney, she saw countless black men arrested for the crime of “walking at night while black” or “driving in a white neighborhood with a beat-up car.” Also, there’s this odd fact: sentencing for crack was/is astronomically higher than it was/is for cocaine.
But hey, at least you have the ability to vote for someone who can change these silly laws! (See below)
Voter Suppression— With such skewed sentencing laws, felonies and even revoked drivers licenses prevent a large portion of the black community from voting. This disenfranchisement just advances the policies that continue to oppress.
But hey, umm. . .
This is why white people don’t need their month. It’s because we have the luxury of not even being aware of our race. The only time a lot of us white folk are aware of our race is when we walk into a space with POC (people of color) leadership. Why do we notice then? Is it because we are accustomed to white people running the show? “The color of someone’s skin doesn’t affect my opinion,” we say. But it’s because we white folks have the benefit of having never experienced the other side of that opinion—of racism.
Happy Black History Month!
King, Martin Luther, Jr., Why We Can’t Wait. Signet Classics, 1963.