February 1st marks the beginning of Black History Month in America. Reflecting on this month and recent events has afforded me the opportunity to consider the ways in which we recognize and spotlight historically oppressed and marginalized groups. Existing (surviving for some) in a global pandemic that brought to our consciousness America’s xenophobia along with obvious disparities in healthcare, an uprising that brought a loud call for America to recognize the humanity of Black folks and confirmation of what we’ve always known… that racism does exist. This all existed in parallel to an historic election existing taking place amid a deeply divided nation and culminating in an open insurrection of White supremacist proportions… 2020 showed us and 2021 is showing us that history is not just about the past… it is also our present.
Many communications went out today acknowledging Black History month. And these types of communications occur regularly in an effort to recognize the various historically marginalized and oppressed groups that are often erased or silenced the rest of the year. These acknowledgements are published in a group's “respective month”. Truth be told, I find engaging in these types of communication problematic in that it perpetuates a narrative that every day history is owned by the dominant culture — a narrative I clearly don’t agree with. History is neither static or linear, it is all encompassing and nuanced, and should be inclusive. It is time to change the narrative. On one hand, we must acknowledge the efforts that folks like my mom had to make to first get recognized as having a history beyond slavery, and then expanding Black History week to Black History month. And on the other hand, a more authentic acknowledgement of Black history is a part of American history, and therefore should be incorporated into our history curriculum.
Whether our American story is a consequence of horrific enslavement, fleeing persecution, seeking opportunity, or being born here, we have all inherited a country that we know was rooted in the oppression and violence of “othering” people. For some of us, we continue to fight to be treated equitably and be recognized fully as human beings. For others the capacity of some family members to assimilate and become part of the dominant culture is rooted in a loss of culture and language from the land of our ancestors. And because of this, it is critical that we include the history and narratives of oppressed and historically marginalized human beings regularly into our conversations and about America’s history - not just on a special day or month.
To support our work and growth around race based conversations, the BIPOC Affinity Group decided to read Isabel Wilkerson’s newest book, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent. In it she writes,
“We in the developed world are like homeowners who inherited a house on a piece of land that is beautiful on the outside, but whose soil is unstable loam and rock, heaving and contracting over generations, cracks patched but the deeper ruptures waved away for decades, centuries even. Many people may rightly say, ‘I had nothing to do with how this all started. I have nothing to do with the sins of the past. My ancestors never attacked Indigenous people, never owned slaves.’ And, yes. Not one of us was here when this house was built. Our immediate ancestors may have had nothing to do with it, but here we are, the current occupants of a property with stress cracks and bowed walls and fissures built into the foundation. We are the heirs to whatever is right or wrong with it. We did not erect the uneven pillars or joists, but they are ours to deal with now.”
One of the last reports put out by the previous administration, produced by the 1776 Commission, called on schools to return to teaching European-based American history. This practice would not only set us back as a nation, but it seeks to completely erase those Americans who deserve equal recognition for their various contributions to this country. The creation of this report was a reaction to the success of the 1619 Project and an effort to discredit the research of this project while negating the importance of critical race theory in education. Therefore, it is critical that educators who claim an interest in equity based approaches to curriculum follow through by intersecting social and racial justice into their American history curriculum.
I know that there are many educators who need support in understanding what this could look like. To this, I’d suggest telling the stories of Freedom Riders and abolitionists. Intersect this history with the stories of immigrants arriving from Europe and beyond who felt compelled to give up their culture to assimilate into White America. When discussing women in power, engage in a conversation around the feminist movement and center the anti-Black contradictions that made this an exclusionary movement while preaching equity and inclusion. Include in this conversations the writing and the work of the Combahee River Collective as a response to the anti-Blackness of the feminist movement. Be sure to discuss the history of medical experimentation on Black people when debating the rise and use of vaccines and how modern medicine evolved. Highlight the significance of the Stonewall Riots and very explicitly name Marsha P. Johnson on equitable footing and alongside Harvey Milk for their shared and necessary contributions to the LGBTQ+ movement. And when we talk about safe spaces for youth, spotlight why advocates fought to have a school dedicated to the safety and education of LGBTQ+ youth in New York City. Highlight the role of Chinese immigrants who died building the transcontinental railroad and how they helped completely change the American landscape. Talk about how there is very little difference between putting Latinx immigrant children in cages and Japanese internment camps. There is a plethora of American history to be named missing here but my point is that to relegate these histories as “special mentions” in the appropriate month, erases the human beings who helped shape and contribute to this country.
I want to be explicit in stating that this is not an effort to “multiculturalize” Black History month or minimize the importance of individual group recognition in any other month. It is a challenge to for all of us to name and recognize the whole history of Black folks beyond the month of February and as full citizens of this country. In doing so, we create an opportunity to “unerase” diverse histories. As author Keeanga-Yahmahatta Taylor reminds us in, How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective, the Collective was clear, “If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression.” I believe this in my soul to be true — history has shown us that when Black folks attain rights, all folks have benefited from those rights.
So, this is a call for accountable, inclusive teaching by including in daily history lessons about the people who helped build this nation but were unable to fully benefit from their labor and sacrifices. American history is our collective history. And I’d also challenge all of us to find joy in and recognition in our individual narratives and history, to know them fully and deeply in order to lovingly become a resource by which we can integrate these collective histories fully into this old house that we call America.