Black History Month was originally started as “Negro History Week” in 1926 by historian Carter G. Woodson. Initially, it was intended to be taught only in black schools, as an effort to popularize knowledge about the black past and create accessible role models for children of colour. Woodson said “If you make a man feel that he is inferior, you do not have to compel him to accept an inferior status, for he will seek it himself.”
Woodson’s vision has grown into the Black History month we know today, which takes place across the US, UK, and Canada, where students are educated on the great black figures of history, from Martin Luther King to Malcom X. Black History Month begins, as always, on October first, and while we are aware of it’s presence, it often goes unobserved.
Not without justification, white people feel Black History Month is not for them. Some feel uncomfortable involving themselves in celebrations of black culture. And while some people may remain passive due to discrimination, I think many people absent themselves due to respect for the origin of the celebration. After all, such a beautiful and vital part of Black History Month remains in the coming together of the black-community.
There is undeniably an issue in white people trying to speak on behalf of African culture, or claiming to understand the black experience. There’s issue with me, a non-black middle class female, writing this article. But this is no excuse to be passive. Black History Month is about education and inspiration, and perhaps it is not our place to withdraw from the argument, but our duty to listen. This is a golden opportunity for white people to learn both about black history, and about current black experience. It remains true that Black History Month is not ‘ours’ but we must learn how to be present in an argument without having to lead it.
On the other side of the debate entirely is whether Black History Month should be celebrated at all. Some feel it is a tokenised event, and that the mere conception of it solidifies Black History as ‘other’, lesser, and accepts white history as true history. Ta-naehsi Coates in Between the World and Me spoke of white history acknowledging “black people only as sentimental ‘firsts’” . It’s impossible to study minority history without considering white-bias. But, many believe raising awareness of this bias is demonstrates the importance of Black History Month, by drawing attention away from conventional, white dominated narratives.
Whether you think Black History Month is problematic or not, as a white person it is never a bad idea to take an opportunity to educate yourself on black history. We need Black History Month to think about our role in their history and their present experience, and questions of how involved to get are exactly what we should be asking ourselves. The best thing we can do is to understand the limitations of our viewpoint, and then do everything we can as allies with the privilege we’ve been dealt.