Black History Month is a time for joy alongside learning.
In spite of all the pain and suffering entailed in our legacy – slavery, oppression, and Jim Crow segregation – the month is celebratory. It honors the resilience and success of Black Americans who have overcome uncanny obstacles.
That’s why February is full of lists of first Black accomplishments. You can easily find them on websites, or catch them on TV. Each first-fact is a tangible reminder that knowledge is power. It’s empowering to learn that:
- Jackie Robinson was the first baseball player to break the color line and play Major League Baseball in 1947.
- By 1913, Cosmetician Madame C.J. Walker became the first woman self-made millionaire in the United States.
- Dr. Charles Drew discovered a method for long-term storage of blood plasma and organized the first large-scale blood bank.
- Black Wall Street was not a myth—it was a fairly wealthy community of Black Oklahomans in the early 1900s that was destroyed white mobs during the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921.
It’s also empowering to gain a deeper appreciation of the extremity of Black disenfranchisement. We were repeatedly denied access to livelihood, political representation, and the vote. But we overcome these inequities every day.
To be American is to appreciate both the greatness of individual citizens – many who will be honored during Black History Month – and acknowledge the terrible injustices our nation has sunk to in pursuit of wealth and power. We need a full recounting, or else the tapestry of history is incomplete. Black history is American history.
These points would seem to be incontestable. Yet – absurdly in 2022 — they’re not. This year, Black History month is being politicized, and at times has even become a focus of resentment, because of the conservative campaign against so-called Critical Race Theory.
Scholars agree that Critical Race Theory (CRT) is a highly respected body of legitimate work. The anti-CRT campaign is a scare tactic and racist dog whistle. Nevertheless, according to an analysis by Education Week, since January, 2022, 37 states have taken proactive steps that would restrict CRT and “divisive concepts” in classrooms.
They claim to believe that learning about Black history will divide young people from their peers. So they want to erase the actual segregation that divided Black children from white just 50 years ago.
Superintendent Eric Mackey in Alabama – a state that was a hub of the Civil Rights Movement – has been receiving calls this month from parents who want to eliminate Black History Month.
Since January, teachers and professors have faced the threat of being fired because of this right-wing push to sanitize teaching and unmemorize history. Refusing to let teachers convey information they know is essential to a well-rounded education is the antithesis of the spirit of learning.
It’s not improbable that under some proposed guidelines that whole speeches and song lyrics from prominent Black figures would be banned from curriculums. Teachers would describe histories of our country’s founding, but skip the massacres of Black Americans and Native Americans altogether
The restrictions would be laughable if they weren’t so harmful and really happening. This is a campaign to rob history of its accuracy by teaching narratives that omit America’s crimes and unnecessary brutality, especially those committed by white people. Without detailing the cruelty of slavery, the humiliation of Jim Crow, or story of Southern lynching, Black freedom struggles of the past and present have no meaning. Students who haven’t been exposed to the raw truth about the past won’t understand the magnitude of today’s civil rights movements.
But that is part of the strategy. It serves the conservative agenda to have large swathes of Americans unawares. The unlearned won’t appreciate tactics that resurrect the past. They won’t be triggered by the return of legal voter disenfranchisement.
Today, GOP members have filibustered the passage of the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement act that would guarantee voting rights for all Americans. It would be convenient for the conservative agenda for Americans not to know the history of poll taxes and literacy tests whose intent was to maintain legal segregation and stop Blacks and other poor Americans from voting.
Present-day conservative politicians and major special interest groups have a state-by-state campaign to enact laws that make voting inaccessible to minorities. Meanwhile, in Washington conservative representatives use the filibuster to stop the majority party from striking down these laws, just as racists used the filibuster to stymie civil rights reform in the 1920s and the 1950s.
And that’s the conservative agenda in a nutshell – stop education so that ignorance leads to confusion and apathy while regressive legislation prevails.
Black History Month, however, is about remembering, not forgetting.
That’s why teachers in Kentucky, and elsewhere are fighting back. They’re defiantly still including essential knowledge in their lesson plans. They do this because Black History Month narratives about defying injustice to win freedom for themselves and for future generations contain everything that America needs to know to build a more perfect union that serves us all.