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Black History Month Protects Whiteness: False Narratives & Hand-Picked Caricatures Perpetuate Norms

This might come across as harsh or even sound controversial but I’m going to say it anyway. The current state of how Black History Month is handled in most situations has in large part failed to inspire pride or adequately educate the masses about the contributions of “Black genius” to this country and the world. To put it bluntly, Black History Month has morphed into a mechanism that protects whiteness. Ok, I said it; now hear me out, I attribute this to a power structure that has narcissistically decided to intentionally choose and ultimately turn Black heroes into caricatures.

Now, indulge me for a moment…

At a very basic level, let us agree that the bulk of Black history begins with educational institutions and how effective said institutions choose to incorporate certain historical figures into the celebration and edification of Black history (American history). If those responsible for curriculum related to the history of America shape the narrative that Black lived experiences weren’t that bad, then it is understandable how our limited amount of truth-based knowledge fails to transcend pride and isn’t reflected in American history today.

I would also add that too many people would be hard-pressed to name and describe the contributions of more than 5-10 Black historical figures. I was having a conversation with a colleague, and she said, “you are being very gracious to think the masses of Americans could name and describe 5-10 Black historical figures.” I guess that speaks to my faith in humanity and it definitely speaks to the forgiveness of those of African descent. Imagine this world, if Africans in the diaspora unified and got some real “get-back” deservingly so.

The exposure of this reality has particularly been magnified since the public lynching of George Floyd, coupled with the erroneous positioning of Critical Race Theory (CRT) as a traditional educational strategy. This dual reality to a high degree has triggered a “guilt complex” in many “mela-anemic” people, so much so that causing public officials, corporate executives, thought leaders, and influencers to make public declarations condemning the systemic and institutional racism that has crippled America’s ability, to tell the truth and incorporate Black history as an integral part of American history.

While Black History Month should be about who, what, when, where, and how Black folks have not only built this country for free and without credit, but it also should address the negative impacts of systems like, but not limited to, slavery, colonization, capitalism, and even Christianity. It has been the exacerbation and proliferation of excluding Black history that has also protected whiteness. The guilt and fear are heavy weights to carry and have stalled efforts to effectively embrace and incorporate what it means for Black lives to matter.

Going back to its inception, we have to have a conversation about why Dr. Carter G. Woodson was inspired to organize a movement not just to disseminate information about Black History but to also inspire an urgent need to be proud of being Black. The original goal was about self-pride, an opportunity to know more about from which and whom we’ve come. Dr. Woodson was insistent on ways in which to achieve racial equality through the centering and lifting of Black excellence. As well, he was concerned about showing the world how the contributions of Black labor, genius, and ingenuity were essential to America becoming the land of prosperity.

Dr. Woodson, in my opinion, was an American revolutionary. In that, he witnessed the backlash of emancipation, through overt biases of white supremacy, Jim Crow, and the violent lynching and disregard for Black bodies, life, and existence. He was motivated by a lack of educational efficacy, the abolition of violence, and addressing the growing racial divide between Northern and Southern Blacks. His work addressed this very false narrative that pitted Northern and Southern Blacks against each other as if their struggles weren’t rooted in racism.

In 1933, Woodson wrote the book, The Mis-Education of the Negro, to highlight the oppressor and oppression that intentionally attempted to crush the ability of Black progress and success beyond slavery. Part of Dr. Woodson’s mission was a long desire to marry African American and American history as mutually inclusive and reliant upon one another to be. This led to the founding of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History in 1916.

It was 1926, when Dr. Woodson launched Negro History Week, around the birth dates of Abraham Lincoln (February 12) and Frederick Douglas (February 14), as he considered their stature of importance to the history of Black people in America. However, it wasn’t until 1970 at Kent State University in Ohio, that educators and students thought to extend the week to a month. In 1976, Black History Month would go on to be recognized nationally.

Black History Month was intended to educate white people and remind Black folks of the arduous journey, laced with struggle and determination. It was a reminder to respect, protect, and honor Black lives. To tell the stories that are often dismissed, overlooked, and even forgotten. However, I have concluded that Black History Month has not lived up to its original goals, and consequently has deeply protected whiteness. There is a shadow over the real possibility of what Black History Month should be because the dominant “white” power structure controls the narrative.

Even though many in the Black community are intentional about lifting and centering Black lived experiences, whiteness finds a way to shape the narrative and control the outcome of what Black pride looks like and ways to marry Black history with American history. America was founded on several lies, the biggest being race as a social construct of superiority and inferiority. Hence, severing the ability to make sure Black people are aware of what Black people have given this country for free. This has even impacted how the collective Black experience has been taken advantage of in the process of this country becoming a world superpower, and that is the greatest fallacy of them all. In fact, the lie has been sustained by violent outcries to preserve the status quo for whiteness.

Every year, I find myself in this cycle, spiraling to a point of disdain that forces me to highlight the obstacles that silence and hinder Black excellence, instead of celebrating the triumphs. Having conversations with like-minded individuals about how Black History Month has become a propaganda tool that fails to really show an appreciation for the Black lived experience is exhausting. The conundrum is layered in that there is a regurgitation of information about the same Black heroes, which encourages fear-mongering from those in positions of power to act against the interest of unifying this country. The spotlight on the importance of Black history has subsequently been dimmed.

I feel like all of the books I’ve read, BA degrees in History and Psychology, and a Master’s degree in Education have caused me to overemphasize, every day, in everything I do that Black-lived experiences matter; still and yet, it seems at every turn whiteness continues to win. Even with continued efforts to insert Blackness into every conversation, the weight of being hyper-sensitive to healing trauma associated with race is overwhelming. If this were not the case, those responsible for the attacks on the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, would have suffered consequences for treason by now. Likewise, paying reparations would be a no-brainer.

For me personally, my drive to combat anti-Blackness at every turn has become pertinent to my survival. I am an anti-racism impact strategist, who focuses on equity. My passion is enveloped in the goal of manifesting the anti-racist future we all deserve by building spaces where the next generation won’t need to deal with or heal from racialized trauma. Thus, I have built a business around fighting the inequities and injustices associated with racism.

As the mother of 6 Black boys, I have witnessed the missed opportunities to provide quality, equitable, and accurate education around Black history and have intentionally encouraged my boys to always approach learning from a Black lens. As a history teacher, for nearly 20 years, I have put in the extra time to delicately inform and include Black history into the objectives of class lessons and subject matter curriculum. It has been met with so much pushback, hence the further proliferation and realization that we all have been intentionally, systemically, and institutionally kept from the truth, so as not to disrupt the narrative of “America the land of the free and home of the brave.”

To intentionally provide false narratives around Black contributions and the history associated with Black lived experiences, in order to exacerbate a narrative that America is a diverse melting pot has been dangerous, to say the least. There are no wonder educators across the country and the world for that matter are greatly awakening to the FACT that racism, as a tentacle of white supremacy, is well and alive at the core of education. In the past few years, this awakening has led to an urgent response to do something very different with the hope to decolonize popular American culture, norms, stereotypes, and biases encountered when dealing with race relations and power constructs.

Let me take my conclusion a step further, in that the powers that be, where the lens of whiteness highly dictates what is taught and which narratives to trust have done the polar opposite of Dr. Carter G. Woodson’s original goal. As a byproduct, the lens of whiteness also selects who becomes an acceptable Black hero. Most people can regurgitate basic information about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, Harriet Tubman, and Rosa Parks but few have been exposed to their very revolutionary stances on racism and inequity in this country. Martin and Rosa, for example, were clean-cut, working-class, Christian Blacks, whose character and integrity was harder to tarnish than that of Malcolm X or Claudette Colvin, both of whom have continually received negative shine.

Case in point, Claudette Colvin, 15 years old and pregnant, refused to give up her seat to a white woman on a crowded, segregated Montgomery bus on March 2, 1955; whereas Rosa Parks, on principle, refused to surrender her seat on December 1, 1955. Rosa ultimately became the “face” of the Montgomery Bus Boycott because of who she was in the community and how her character was more aligned with American values.

Beyond the 3-5 hand-selected Black heroes whom most Americans are familiar with, America has collectively failed to optimize the potential of what Black History Month could and should be.

The “Father of Black History”, Carter G. Woodson, dedicated his life to making sure Black folks developed a sense of self-pride by celebrating the achievements of generations of Blacks in this country from its inception. Under the guise of commemorating Black history, heritage, and culture, Woodson is hardly ever mentioned during what we now know as Black History Month.

As I conclude, I would be remiss if I didn’t speak to what bugs me the most about the state of Black History Month and how it has become a time to tokenize caricatures, who sacrificed their living for the masses, Black, white, and other. We have to recognize that there has become a complete disinterest in the legacy of the very people who built this country for free and how some of their legacies have been distorted. We collectively are responsible for how this information is disseminated, or the truth about the Black lived experience will ultimately die. As an educator, I would ask those who are leading organizing efforts to celebrate Black History to consider where privilege lies and to speak the names of historical Black leaders who have been intentionally removed from American history.

There is privilege in being a heterosexual man, so consider celebrating a woman, a queer icon, or a transgender leader.

There is privilege in being a Christian, so consider celebrating a Muslim or indigenous spiritual tradition like Ifa, Voodoo, or Hoodoo (yes you read that correctly… whiteness has told you that Voodoo is evil, not our ancestors).

There is privilege in speaking English, so consider celebrating a Black diasporic immigrant.

There is privilege in being educated and financially stable, so consider celebrating someone who came from meager beginnings and never became a financial influencer.

The above suggestions are a surface way to expand our approach to celebrating Black History but don’t let your effort end there. Instead of relying on traditional text, consider the curriculum developed by the very people who have led movements, like but not limited to, the Black Panther Party, SNCC, the Nation of Islam, and Black Lives Matter. Google is your friend, be creative in your search for non-traditional figures and events to highlight; there is a wealth of information we can access at our fingertips. And if we don’t do this now, the next generation will suffer; and the repercussions will potentially be devastating.

As a connoisseur of Black history and the legacy my ancestors left behind for us to right the wrongs of, I am reminded of images that speak to the hatred for and towards Black life and progress. There are so many images I can reference, but one that speaks louder than others relates to the “Little Rock Nine”. While integrating Central High School, in Little Rock, Arkansas. As Black students were ushered onto campus, there were white onlookers screaming in disagreement with the presence of Black bodies. Like those who stood by in their Sunday’s best to watch lynching after lynching or those who would fabricate stories, where the end result was death, like but not limited to Emmitt Till or those who sprayed water hoses and sicked attack dogs on protesters fighting for Civil Rights.

One onlooker stands out from the many images that cloud my mind and define American pride. In this particular image, you can see the venom and hatred as she screamed against the integration of Central High School. This woman’s name was Elizabeth Eckford, and she will go down in the annals of history as a representative of what white supremacy looks like. But here’s the crazy part we must all consider, her children, grandchildren, and so on won’t be able to deny what she did that day. Just like no one can erase the strength and resilience of a people who survived the violence that is America, neither can we erase the vessels who delivered the message of hate.

This, in part, is where the fear lies and continues to protect whiteness to this day. It is hard to teach about the “Little Rock Nine” without seeing the magnitude of that image. We must not sugar-coat or white-wash away the ways in which Blacks in America were treated and described to the rest of the world, as “lazy Black, super-predators”. See, this could have been a valuable, teachable moment about Elizabeth, but to this point, we don’t know the power of reconciliation, reciprocity, forgiveness, or even humanity. The powers that be have historically decided to erase, silence, other, soften, and falsely narrate the Black lived experience away from public view.

Consequently, the stain of American racism has trickled over from generation to generation, and all across the globe. Let us collectively admit that Black History Month has been violated in a way where a superiority complex rooted in a false social construct called “race” has prevailed. And, in turn, we must grapple with the realization that it will take generations to correct.

Yes, the sacredness of Black History Month has been compromised. Tainted to a certain degree by a manipulation of power. A long-lasting degradation of a people whose DNA is dominant. And even the fact that we all share the DNA of a woman from the continent of Africa, there is no honor or protection among thieves, who continue to take advantage of Africa to this day.

However, even in my conclusion that Black History Month perpetuates whiteness, I still feel hopeful about Dr. Woodson’s dream. I am determined to continue to speak out against racism when it rears its ugly little head. Even when the face of racism is an unknowledgeable governor who thinks there is no relevance in an AP Ethnic Studies class centering Black-lived experiences when other AP offerings currently exist representing other ethnic groups who are less dangerous to the narrative of American whiteness. My conscience proudly declares there are no caricatures here, as our ancestors sacrificed it ALL for the great good of humanity, and their stories deserve to be told loudly…doing everything to meet and exceed Dr. Carter G. Woodson’s dream of rectifying those things stolen from a people who were stolen from Africa.

By Sonia Lynnette Williams-Lewis

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