Do we still need Black History Month?
I once taught at a school that served a predominately African American, middle class population. At the time, the minority count among faculty members numbered 6 White and 1 Asian (me). During Black History Month, I was on the Multicultural Committee and was asked to do a MLK poster contest. I turned it down, citing reasons based on National Art Educators Association’s stance about how poster contests promote the wrong message about creativity and art. One of the members said, “If your child was Black then you would do this contest.” This passionate response led me to think about the stages that might occur before an oppressed group can achieve feelings of empowerment. There must be healing and a sense of conciliation, where one must feel vindicated for all the wrong-doings of the past. I understand this in a similar context because my parents survived the Korean War and lived through Japanese annexation. Under colonization, they had to give up their birth names and were given Japanese ones. The defensiveness and suspicion that all is not equal is hard to shake in one generation. I should mention there were many teachers at that school who WERE empowered and considered Black History Month as a celebration of an important part of American history – an opportunity to reflect on Dr. King’s message that segregation and racism must be avoided regardless of the color of our skin. Before I continue, I want to state that I do not personally know what the Black experience is like and cannot say I know what Black people went through, but I think in general terms, when people experience oppression, they must go through these stages of grief, anger and identification before moving on to equal footing and a sense of empowerment. I think our country is still a works in progress on the equality front. Just consider the recent Democratic elections and the media blitz regarding a Black man and White woman running for office. Although Obama won, our conversations reflect a nation that is still grappling with racial and gender biases.
I want to add that I did the poster contest after all. When I presented the winner of the “best” poster, I took this opportunity to highlight Dr. King’s message of hope and peace for all children. I pointed out how our hero found inspiration from an Indian man across the globe, named Mahatma Gandhi. And that oppression, racism and discrimination is found everywhere, not just in Selma Alabama or the US. When you consider the Gay Rights Movement, People with Disabilities Movement, Roe vs. Wade, Youth Rights Movement, Women’s Movement, Tiananmen Square protests and so many other important events, many have ridden on the coattails of the African American Civil Rights Movement and continue to do so. Until Social Studies textbooks in our schools provide an inclusive view and pervasive model of American history that is not specific to White history and until there is equality and a recognition that discrimination still exists today whether socioeconomic or based on how recently you immigrated here, we must continue to highlight the achievements of Black History and the Civil Rights Movement. If it were up to me, Native American History Month would be on the calendar as well. This is necessary to present the true facts and voices of all people involved in the history of America.