White History Month?

In a recent article from The Nation, Gary Younge asks, “Whatever happened to James Blake?” Blake is, of course, the bus driver whom Rosa Parks flatly disobeyed, unwittingly beginning Montgomery Bus Boycott and securing herself a place in history. Younge also asks about the fates of J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant (the men who murdered Emmett Till) and Victoria Price and Ruby Bates (the women who falsely accused the Scottsboro Boys of rape, landing them in prison for years).

He argues that we need a month (a “White History Month”) to talk about these people and their impact on history. Black History Month only goes so far, he claims, because “so much of [it] takes place in the passive voice. Leaders ‘get assassinated,’ patrons ‘are refused’ service, women ‘are ejected’ from public transport. … In removing the instigators, the historians remove the agency and, in the final reckoning, the historical responsibility.” To some extent, this criticism is unfair. Black History Month is intended as a celebration of black history, not as a means assigning blame. But this, in and of itself, creates problems.

Nevertheless, Younge has an important point to make about collective responsibility. “When it comes to excelling at military conflict,” he claims, “everyone lays claim to their national identity; people will say, ‘We won World War II.’ By contrast, those who say ‘we’ raped black slaves, massacred Indians or excluded Jews from higher education are hard to come by.”

Here he hits the nail on the head: Americans do have problems accepting responsibility for the past. Younge laments the fact that Americans refuse to be held responsible “for what their ancestors did” or “the priveleges they enjoy as a result.” I tend to agree, but he misses one important point. What about those whose ancestors are legitimately innocent? As Matthew Frye Jacobson notes in concluding his 1998 book Whiteness of a Different Color, many members would-be “whites” now choose to identify primarily with their ethnic heritage, be it Irish or Italian, in an ostensible attempt to avoid the stigma of “white privilege.” Perhaps their ancestors owned no slaves—indeed, most southerners owned no slaves—but like it or not, this is a part of America’s racial heritage, and they cannot (and should not) run from it.

I would agree with Younge that we must relieve “the burden on African-Americans to recast the nation’s entire racial history in the shortest month of the year,” but a White History Month we do not need. Separating Rosa Parks’ story from James Blake’s does little good. No, what we need is a better way to incorporate our “separate pasts” year-round.

Instead of cordoning off Black History in February, we should discuss it every day. On the anniversary of Emmett Till’s death, we should discuss the actions of J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant and what drove them to do what they did. On the anniversary of the Brown decision, we should discuss what it was and what it meant. And everyday, we should remove the passive voice from our discussions. Black history and white history have been created in conjunction with each other—we cannot pretend that they are separate without doing ourselves a great disservice.


2 Responses to “White History Month?”

  1. March 6, 2007 at 4:13 pm

    We could also include those whites who challenged the system as abolitionists and civil rights activists. Many of them also gave their lives for equality and human rights.

  2. 2 Mon
    March 6, 2007 at 6:21 pm

    I am enjoying your new blog–look forward to reading more.

    I agree with your ultimate point here–a White History Month is not needed. We should discuss historical events within context. I think too often it is not that Black history is painted as passive, but it is often presented in a vacuum–unconnected to the relationships and causes that led to the actions of the MLKs and the Fannie Lou Hamers. When we just list accomplishments or events, we don’t show students (especially young students) how history is essentially about relationships. By the time they get to college (especially here in the South), many students see Black history as irrelevant or some “other” and unfortunately often become resistant. So I think you are on to something very important by highlighting the need for attention to “pasts” and how our pasts are interwoven.

    Which reminds me, I cringed a bit at your previous post about our pasts and the need to integrate them. Given that “integration” has always been unidirectional, that term just carries too much baggage for me personally, but I feel what you are saying and I think you are absolutely right.

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