This week marks the beginning of Black History Month. Every February, black educators around the country deep-dive into the contributions of African-Americans while the mainstream white-centered media pulls out the same five Famous Black People to profile over and over.
If you’re white, that means you’ll hear about Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, the guy with the peanuts (who didn’t invent peanut butter, by the way), and the two-headed Harriet Sojourner Tubman-Truth. Then you’ll have some chuckles about the time Donald Trump thought Frederick Douglass was still alive—never mind the fact that most white people didn’t know who Frederick Douglass was.
If you’re trying to be woke and be an ally, good for you. So am I. Keep trying, and keep reading. If you’re convinced the goal should be color-blindness, definitely keep reading. Because no, not in the short term. We white people can’t fix this by being color-blind.
Also, I encourage you to take a pause from this article to go read Alex Yarde’s article about King Johnson. In it, he talks about how white teachers have the choice to either learn from or silence black student voices, something which applies to any white person looking to reflect on their biases and perspectives.
This is the time of the year that white people pull out Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech. I’ve noticed, though, that this is two different speeches. That is to say, white folks tend to hear a different theme than many black people do.
White people love to quote this part: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” We interpret this to mean that the good Reverend was looking for a day when all people, white and of color, will see each other as humans, not as colors.
That’s not exactly what he’s saying. He’s talking specifically about his own people. There’s nothing here about black people moving out of their wariness and judgmentalism of white people, nor should there be. The oppressed have no obligations to trust the oppressors; in the words of Jesse Williams, “the burden of the brutalized is not to comfort the bystander.”
We white people need to work long and hard to make amends for our errors and the errors of our forebears. We have to build the bridges. Only when they’re sturdy, only when all our own evils are truly in the past, should we begin to expect trust.
Here is another passage of King’s speech, a key theme that many white people ignore: “We’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our Republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note.” Last year, Jesse Williams made a similar comment on BET: “We’ve been floating this country on credit for centuries, and we’re done watching and waiting while this invention called whiteness uses and abuses us.”
We cannot focus solely on the dream of racial unity and ignore the cost that comes with it. We cannot pretend to be color blind until we live in a country where the color of little children’s skin truly doesn’t matter. First we cash the check, then we live in King’s dream, not the other way around.
This is also the time of year that white people ask where White History Month is.
The pat answer is that the other eleven months are White History Month. That the history classes are filled with the accomplishments of white men. That the entire culture is so tied up in white culture that we don’t need more.
That’s true, but at the same time, there’s a deep problem with it. It’s dishonest history. History is written by the winners, and when it comes to how white people are portrayed in our history books, this is painfully true.
We’ll tell the story of Christopher Columbus that King Johnson wanted. Columbus wasn’t the first person to figure out the world was round; that was discovered more than a thousand years before, and it was fairly common knowledge among the educated of Columbus’s time. He wasn’t a great explorer who brought civilization to the savages, he was a cynical financial opportunist looking for easier trade routes to India. His “discovery” of the New World later opened the floodgates for European abuse, the forced relocation of Native Americans, and the forced importation of humans from Africa.
We’ll tell the story of Pocahontas. When she knew John Smith, she was not a young adult suited for a Disney film. She was 16 years younger than him, and she was eleven or twelve when they knew each other. By the age of 17, she was kidnapped and taken to England; this part of the story is unrelated to Smith.
We’ll tell the story of Virginia’s General Counsel. In 1640, they were faced with a case of three indentured servants who had run away. Two were European, while the third, John Punch, was African. The Counsel ruled that the two European men would have their indentures lengthened by a mere four years, while Punch would be indentured for the rest of his life. This was an act of racism by an early American government, and it was the birth of the African Slave Trade in what would become the United States. And it is more likely than not that our first black President is a direct descendant of our first African slave.
We’ll tell the story of how Thomas Jefferson had six children with his slave, Sally Hemings. The story is known but white-washed as a love story. It glosses over the fact that the relationship probably started when Hemings was no more than 16 and Jefferson was around 45 (in the movie “Jefferson in Paris,” Sally is played by a 23-year-old). We’ll include a footnote about how, in 2017, this rape was used as a punchline by a white person.
Let’s tell the story of the white people who drove over ten thousand Native Americans to death through forced removal from their lands in the early nineteenth century. This was described recently by a Canadian textbook as the time the Natives “agreed to move” to escape “the hustle and bustle.”
Let’s tell the story of the white people who lynched former slaves and destroyed their property, or the ones who tried to perpetuate slavery through sharecropping. Or the white people who drew red lines to keep black people out of their neighborhoods. Or perhaps we could talk about the way anyone who wasn’t of the “right” European heritage (such as the Irish, Jews, and Poles) were marginalized as well.
Please, let’s tell the story of the white adults who threw racial epithets at six-year-old Ruby Bridges, and then pulled their children out of the school, leaving her to be alone in the newly “integrated” school. Or the white adults who refused to teach her.
Nearly every story of racial oppression in this country, be it against people from Africa, the people who were already here, Latinx, Asians, and even other whites, has been perpetuated by whites. But we clean that up. We tell tidy stories where the white people are kindly and, at worst, misunderstood.
This isn’t about self-hatred or guilt, this is about honesty. This is about taking a long look into the White Mirror, staring ourselves in the eye, and acknowledging. We can’t move on until we acknowledge.
So the next time someone wonders where White History Month is, offer this: Honest White History Month, with all the warts, all the bruises, all the tumors.
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