“Black history is American History.” Every February, some variant of this sentiment finds its way into my news feed, usually in the form of an appropriated and decontextualized Morgan Freeman quote, a Stacy Dash Fox News interview or the status of a well-meaning social media friend suggesting that Black History Month is an unnecessary and irrelevant practice, one that only serves to further divide us as a nation. While I support the statement, I can’t help but note the cultural backgrounds of those friends and acquaintances who share these things, and the fact their voices are largely silent or unproductively present regarding the place of blackness outside of the month of February.
Black history is American history, but all parts of American history are not equally or fairly represented, and these discussions seem far more dismissive than inclusive. I notice these things, and they frustrate me. Even more frustrating is the discourse which aims to reduce black history to a ploy to emphasize white guilt by stressing the effects of slavery on modern black life.
If I’m being honest, this frustration has made Black History Month feel like a tired tradition for the past few years. The temptation to respond to these arguments and vouch for the validity of Black History Month and black history as a whole have the potential to derail a discourse which could much more productively be focused on celebration by instead replacing it with one of frustration and anxiety.
This year, I have personally decided to bow out of that defensive discourse during the month of February. While responding to those who discredit or ignore black history is a necessary work, it cannot overshadow the necessity of emphasizing black history’s power and joy in a story that is so often derailed by discussions of slavery and oppression.
These discussions are necessary to solving problems of discrimination and structural inequality, but they cannot be the whole of our discourse or the extent of our knowledge of black history. Momentarily removing ourselves from contentious cultural discourse doesn’t mean that the work stops, and it doesn’t mean that more fairly and accurately interpreting history isn’t a work in line with the mission of solving those problems, but it does mean that for one month, we take a necessary reprieve from feeling the need to justify and validate black culture. We have 11 other months to fight that good fight, so for right now, I will focus my attention on asserting the truth that Black Americans have contributed more to our collective history than a legacy of oppression.