The Harmful Rhetoric of Black History Month

The Harmful Rhetoric of Black History Month

By Ryan Ricks

You’re probably aware that February was Black History Month. How could you not be? Every news outlet had put out at least one article about the subject weekly. Tweet after tweet about it trended during the month. Even Spotify got in on the action, creating playlists centering on black artists. However, the month of February is now over, which means Black History Month is too. That means it is time for more months of “normal” news, at least until the next historically marginalized group has a month for people to fawn over. 

This is not how we should be celebrating black history, or any minority history at all. Black History Month can and should be a time for celebration and reflection. But more often than not, it has been used as a tool for white people to feel good about themselves. 

There’s a common sentiment, at UHS and around the country, that “black history is American history.” I agree with that, but often times, words and actions do not match. If black history is American history, then why are we isolating it by giving it a separate name and only one month where it is ever truly talked about? By calling “black history” and “American history” two different things, we are ignoring the key role African Americans have played in American history, not to mention generalizing black history, because what even counts as black history? When most people use this term, they’re talking about the history of black people in the United States. This completely ignores almost all of black history outside of America. 

By ignoring these other aspects of black history, we are limiting it. But this is far from the only way we limit it. When we focus on black history for only one month of the year, we are isolating black history. It implies that there isn’t a lot of black history to talk about (especially when we don’t even celebrate it the whole month, but rather on specific days), which makes it seem like black history is not as important as other history, which is just plain untrue. 

As I’ve said before, Black History Month should be a time for celebration and reflection. It should be a time where equality and honoring this history is valued above anything else. But the way that we celebrate it does quite the opposite. America’s celebration of Black History Month implies that we should only value black people because of the significant accomplishments of certain people in their race. Not, you know, because they’re human beings. It’s especially problematic when people make the celebration of these figures about themselves, such as when they discuss their own experience with the figure and say that their personal experience is why that person should be valued. Again, not because they’re human beings. 

This is harmful, because not only are we being told that we should value black people for what they have done and not simply because they are human beings. We are literally putting black people below white people by giving white people the power to decide if we should value black people or not, at least when we celebrate Black History Month in this fashion. 

I’m aware that rarely any of these thought processes are conscious, but they are present nonetheless. No one is consciously saying that only white people can decide which minorities are valuable and which aren’t, but it is subconsciously there. 

These attitudes present themselves in how rarely black history is talked about, but imagine if we did talk about it. Imagine if teaching black history, and minority history in general, was normalized. If we didn’t have to point it out and gawk at it every time we brought it up. That would be much more effective in actually honoring these histories to me than making it some sort of spectacle, because it would be taught in the same way as white history. That would be much more effective in actually promoting the equality that we all profess to wanting. 

I’m not saying we should stop celebrating Black History Month. However, we do need to change how we celebrate it. There are a few changes that I believe we need to implement to at least start the work of reducing the harmful rhetoric of Black History Month. 

  1. We need to consider other perspectives, and stop acting as though African-Americans are the only black people in the world.

I understand that since Black History Month is celebrated in America, we’re likely to discuss African Americans, but we need to stop acting like black history only began with slavery and is only contained within the United States. It limits what we see as the “black experience” and it ignores black people around the world, and even some black people in the United States. There are many black people who live in America today who did not descend from slaves. Why are we ignoring their history and their experience when they are just as black as the rest of us? 

  1. We need to talk about more than just black figures

By focusing just on black figures and not more broad topics in black history, we are implying that the only reason we should value black people is because of the accomplishments made by some black people. Talking about significant figures is important, but it can’t be the only thing we focus on. We should talk about historical and contemporary issues, trends, just something more than a few figures. Think about how we teach American or European history. We don’t just talk about a couple important people and call it a day. We go in depth, we explore different angles. We don’t talk about how these histories are significant only because individually we find relevance in them. We talk about these histories because they are important, period. We should do the same thing when discussing black history. 

  1. We need to stop treating talking about black history as a chore.

So many times I’ve watched a presentation about black history or some similar event, and the speaker says something along the lines of “it’s Black History Month, so we should talk about black history,” in an unenthused voice. This implies that discussing black history is nothing more than a chore, something we are coerced into doing just so we can give ourselves a pat on the back for mentioning it once a year. The collective history of an entire group of people should not be a chore. This kind of thinking only promotes the narrative that we should only discuss black history during one month of the year and ignore it for all the other ones. 

  1. We need to encourage discussion and discourage lecturing.

This is more UHS-specific, but I believe that it would be more beneficial to include more discussions about black history in classes during Black History Month, than to have an assembly where we are lectured to about black figures. Not that the assembly doesn’t have it’s place, but alone it feels like it is just being used to meet a quota, and I have personally seen that no one really cares during an assembly. People are talking during assemblies all the time, and the one for Black History Month is no different. That is why we need to take a more proactive approach to Black History Month. We need to get people involved in black history. We especially need students to be involved. And I don’t mean making black students shoulder the responsibility of educating their classmates. I mean encouraging student discussion where students will become active in learning about black history. This will lead to a greater understanding and respect of black history, which will greatly improve the way we honor this history.


Image courtesy of PosterMyWall

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