Scott Allen, Republican state senator for Wisconsin, ushered in the new year with a revised list for celebrating this Black History Month in America. The catch is that it consists, largely, of white people, specifically six white abolitionists and four black slaves among three unnamed members of Stockbridge-Munsee band of Mohican Indians thrown in for good measure. Regrettably, his offense is not a one-off. In fact, it marks the third year running where Wisconsin’s Republican lawmakers have tried to white-wash these celebrations. Last February, they forced the black caucus to remove Colin Kapernick from their list, an ex-NFL quarterback deemed too controversial for protesting police brutality by daring to kneel during the national anthem.
Allen has stated that his intention was to “pass a resolution the Republican caucus can be excited about” which, essentially, means incentivising white involvement. But his actions, including his failure to consult any African Americans prior to making his list and his failure to back legislation put forth to address Wisconsin’s racial inequality, speak volumes about his poor commitment to closing America’s gaping racial divide.
State senator Lena Taylor, a black democrat, answered Allen’s arrogance with a retort that, through razor-sharp, is not undeserved: “Thank you Massa Allen for pickin’ whose we should honuh suh. We sho ain’t capable of thinkin’ for ourselves, suh.” What’s more, Allen’s offenses are, allegedly, matched by white Puerto Rican Gina Rodriguez. Known for her lead role in Jane the Virgin and, more recently, using the n-word on her Instagram, she was purportedly commissioned to speak at a school’s Black History Month event. Admittedly it remains unclear whether the Los Angeles Unified School District’s statement is real, but the controversy does dramatically foreground that surrounding actual elected officials like Allen.
Following hard on the heels of yet another controversy surrounding last year’s Man Booker Prize, where Bernadine Evaristo – as the first black woman to win, ever, and the first winner to do so only jointly in over 28 years – was awarded a bittersweet victory, these events must come as a shock to all those cultural commentators that have all too readily rushed to label the past decade a black cultural renaissance.
Ultimately Allen is right to want to involve white people in this month’s celebrations: black history is certainly collective history. But this cannot, as we have and do see all too often, be achieved through devaluing black people so that white people can stay comfortable. Perhaps those white figures might be better celebrated during White History Month, alternatively known as every other month except February.
Attempting to celebrate Black History Month through the far and few white abolitionists who did their part to end slavery is either a monumental oversight or a deliberate mockery, especially when there is such a wealth of inspirational black historical figures that are constantly left out of school curricula and, more recently, twenty-dollar bills.
It was during the Harlem Renaissance that Carter G. Woodson introduced “Negro History Week” which the seventies saw become a month. Black History Month offers a small window – literally, it happens in February – through which black resistance and resilience are finally acknowledged. “Black History Month, in my opinion, is neither Republican nor Democrat, nor should it be treated as such,” Allen told Newsweek. Certainly, but it does – obviously – remain Black History Month.