In observance of Black History Month
In his 1965 essay, “The White Man’s Guilt,” James Baldwin pleaded, “White man, hear me….History, as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely something to be read. And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.”
One of America’s great thinkers and writers, Baldwin loved his country deeply, even as he relentlessly criticized it with needle-sharp poignancy and vision. A central tenet of his criticism was America’s unwillingness to confront the hard truth of its history, the country’s imperfect founding, based on the economics of enslavement, the treatment of human beings like cogs in a machine which, when broken, are simply thrown out and replaced. America justified enslaving others by changing the neutral word race into a word laden with the false truth that white is superior to all else, thereby creating racism, which, in turn, was passed down from generation to generation and used consistently to keep Black people in “their place.” Yet, as Baldwin says, we are largely unconscious of this history, and that unconsciousness then allows us to justify our defensiveness and denial when we are asked to confront it.
One reason for this lack of awareness is that we are not taught our true history. We may devote a whole high school year to American history, but we teach a history of partial facts. We teach about enslavement, but do not delve into the unconscionable details of it; we don’t sit with it, talk about it, imagine into it and so truly grapple with it and how the effects of it are passed down to both white and Black people. We teach about Black heroes like Harriet Tubman but not about all the unknown Black people who exemplified heroism every day, not just in merely surviving but in constantly hoping and striving. We may or may not even learn about slave patrols, but they were the origin of our police system and founded on racism.
We highlight Lincoln’s bravery and rightness in freeing slaves, but do not delve into the complexity of this action. In a debate with Stephen Douglas, Lincoln said, “I will say that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and Black races.” For Lincoln, freeing slaves was a military and economic act as much as, if not more than, a moral one. We learn about Jim Crow but don’t take the time to imagine the consequences of it on the individuals at the mercy of it, the constant stress and denigration that becomes a part of their living history, passed down through generations.
February is Black History Month. Of course the irony of assigning a particular month is that it implicitly suggests Black history is something apart from American history, when, in fact, it is a central, vital part of American history.
Designating a month to it, and the shortest one at that, suggests both a partial recognition that not enough time is included for it in the regular curriculum of American history while at the same time implying that it is separate, not equal, for if it were, it would be laced into every moment of the American history we learn.
Nevertheless, it is a month we can take as both a gift and a responsibility. It offers us a chance for immersion, a deep dive into Black history, an exploration of all that is Black - the music, the art, the literature, the food, the talk, the voices, the struggle, the victories, and, significantly, the role whiteness played and plays. It is a month when we can choose to walk in another person’s shoes, read and listen to Black voices speaking about themselves, the world they experience, and speaking about whiteness, its impact on their lives. It is a month to listen with openness and heart; a month without “but…I’m not, I didn’t.” It is a month to reckon with the reverberation of history in every one of us. And it cannot and must not be just one month. There are days and weeks and months and years to follow, all carrying the responsibility to place Black voices where they have always belonged, as part of our past and present history.
As Amanda Gorman said in her extraordinary poem “The Hill We Climb,” “It’s because being American is more than a pride we inherit/It’s the past we step into/And how we repair it.” And from this learning, stepping into, confronting, taking responsibility and repairing, we can emerge more whole and more unified. “For,” as she writes, “there is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it/If only we’re brave enough to be it.”