“All I want is equality / For my sister, my brother, my people, and me”
— Nina Simone, “Mississippi Goddam”
Black History Month has a problem. The problem is the assumption that Black History Month is for black people. Exclusively. It is effectively Blacks’ History Month: a consolation prize of 28 days shoehorning in All Things Black that we should feel lucky to have. The problem of Black History Month is one of ghettoizing black history — not just on the calendar, but in the mind. It is the problem of seeing blackness and black people as specific — therefore niche — instead of seeing that same specific as universal. As in complex. Rich. Worthy. Human.
Black people know this already. We know we matter. We know black history matters. It is white people who do not get that black history is their history, too.
In her 2016 essay addressing resistance to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in D.C., Shannon Dingle, a white mother to adoptee children of color, writes, “When we, as white people in this country, say a museum of African American history doesn’t tell our stories too, we’re lying. It does. It just tells stories that don’t put us in the best light, stories that show our ancestors on the wrong side of history, stories that we’re simply not proud of.”
There is no history without Black History. No American History or European. After all, “race” was a social construct colonizers built to protect their enterprise here and glorify their monarchs and families back home. “White” and “black” were invented by landowners who decided they were “white.” These landowners feared their indentured servants from Europe would find common humanity with their enslaved African brethren and ignite a class revolt. So, the landowners said to their servants, “Hey, you’re beneath me, but at least you aren’t those n***ers over there. We’re both white. And if you play your cards right, someday you could be me!” And so, swaddled in the American Dream and illusions of meritocracy, race was born. Race was invented as crowd control.
And with it was born a twoness that fit neatly within the existing Western paradigm of dualism (White vs. Black; Good vs. Evil; Mind over Body) institutionalized through religion and law, codified through behavior. Born was the implicit and explicit divide between mainstream history and niche history, “default” white history and black history. Many think of racism at its most overt — the Klan, stereotyping — but those are symptoms. Racism is about power: systemic, institutional, and yes, historical power. History is told by the victors; history is how they frame themselves to secure their power.
Black people already know this. We know it as a matter of survival. White people do not draw the veil back — or even perceive a veil — because their race becomes the default. To them, it isn’t even white — white culture, white values, white history — it’s just what is so.
Race is not real, but the effects of racism are real. Black History Month is for white people not because it’s a moral corrective or an antidote to racism. It’s because Black History critiques “default” history by providing crucial context. It is a check to systemic power. Carter G. Woodson, the second black man to ever earn a Ph.D. at Harvard, founded what became Black History Month in 1926 to combat erasure of black contribution: “If a race has no history, it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated.”
Ultimately, the problem of Black History Month is one of integration. The word is from the Latin: “to render something whole.” But the popular story of integration in America is instead about letting in. It is a story of black people being allowed into white spaces — schools, fountains, drugstore counters previously off limits. It’s Ruby Bridges crossing the threshold of that New Orleans school jeered by white youth and adults, bravely bearing it all under the watchful eye of the National Guard. This version of integration is white people bestowing onto black people. Black people needed to move into the White World, because there was no fathoming that Black Space had value. (Never mind that at the time, black teaching was excellent; it was access to resources that was not.) Integration was one-way assimilation into Whiteness — a condescension framed as heroic and final. Racism fixed!
Whiteness is so favorable an outcome that somehow the dehumanization of a child like Ruby Bridges being spat upon by a white public becomes a fitting price to pay to move on a continuum away from black. This is the legacy of “Integration.” Actual integration would have required literally going two ways, bussing white children into black schools — bringing equal funding and access in their wake — in addition to bussing black children into white schools.
The central lesson of Black History is empathy. Empathy is a skill of perspective-taking. Black people developed this as what W.E.B. DuBois called “double consciousness” — the twoness of seeing from one’s black perspective and also from the dominant culture’s white perspective. For white people — and non-black people of color — the opportunity is to cultivate this perspective-taking actively. When you center black history, black pain, and black triumphs, you learn about the problem of race, and see how those most subject to it thrived in spite of it. Paradoxically, to work “to render whole” is to embrace what was created, and look at race unflinchingly as the way through.
The ultimate goal of Black History Month is obsolescence. But Black History Month will never be obsolete if the only people who it matters to are black.
Maythinee Washington is a native Las Vegan, actor, and writer.