Jamil Smith, Vox, February 28, 2022
The battle over what conservatives mislabel as “critical race theory” has been raging across the country since the summer of 2020, coming in the wake of the global uprising following George Floyd’s murder. The politically conservative rebuke to an all-too-brief uptick in interest about Black lives and antiracism has been a campaign aimed at deleting Blackness from the national story.
The misguided crusade has only proved how much America needs the very thing that Black History Month founder Carter G. Woodson wanted: to fully integrate, year-round, the teaching of Black history into the curriculums of our schools.
Woodson — the second Black Harvard PhD ever and the only child of formerly enslaved Americans to earn one — noted that campaign of erasure upon Negro History Week’s inception, and expressed the hope that the observance would give rise to the further inclusion of Black people within the nation’s narrative:
If a race has no history, it has no worth-while tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated… In such a millennium the achievements of the Negro properly set forth will crown him as a factor in early human progress and a maker of civilization…
Must we let this generation continue ignorant of these eloquent facts?
Over the generations since, however, that is precisely what has happened. Public and private education about Black history and achievements has been insufficient, at best, even before the manufactured panic Republicans are stoking. Woodson’s observance, explicitly intended to integrate the teaching of Black history inside school classrooms, has become more of a marketing ploy for consumer brands and a virtue-signaling opportunity for political leaders.
Black History Month was not meant simply to make us feel less racist or more culturally aware; it was designed to show us what America really is and always has been, so that we might make it better. To a power structure that reinforces and metastasizes racial inequity, one Black History Month is not a threat.
How about 12, though? That is what Woodson sought, after all.
The idea of a “Negro History Year” sounds so much like what Republicans seem to be anxious about that I’m a bit surprised they haven’t used it in a fear-mongering speech or advertisement.
Yet Woodson spoke consistently of his hope for exactly that. He imagined a day in which “the Negro is studied so thoroughly that special exercises are no longer exceptional,” he said in 1940. “There is a growing demand for workbooks and syllabi with which to facilitate the study of the Negro and thus make Negro History Week [into] Negro History Year.”
He also wrote, in a separate article, that his Negro History Week was not merely about increasing instruction, but fostering ambition. “[It] should be a demonstration of what has been done in the study of the Negro during the year and at the same time as a demonstration of greater things to be accomplished,” adding that “a subject which receives attention one week out of the thirty-six will not mean much to anyone.”
Twenty-eight days of concentrated learning, even if done properly and not merely through Instagram memes, would hardly be commensurate with the manifold Black contributions to the American project. Nothing less than a full integration of those lessons into school curricula was ever going to be sufficient.
Black History Year isn’t such a radical idea when you consider that neither I nor my parents were offered the opportunity for me to opt out of learning the history of white people in America. It is still palpable, that perception of my difference or uniqueness I felt during my earliest days at school. I had to learn early, sometimes consciously and sometimes not, how to move through the world as a Black boy in a white world. Those skills have served me well later in life, admittedly. But they were lessons I had to learn.
That fact of life isn’t changing anytime soon. Black folks will need to stay fluent in whiteness, so to speak. Mostly in order to survive, at the very least. But why are white people exempt from returning the favor? How is our nation’s survival not dependent upon them becoming fluent in the experiences of Black people, as well as Indigenous populations, Asian Americans, the disabled and chronically ill, and other marginalized communities?
One could argue that white people haven’t had to consider their whiteness unless there is a perceived hazard to the inherent, unearned societal advantages that they too often enjoy. The increased conspicuousness of their racial category in a slowly diversifying America may be a cause for the conservative panic.
As some further their campaign of disinformation, there is a clear motivation to solidify a younger voting base before they mature, calcifying their ignorance about racial matters so that they do not think critically about the America that is evolving around them. If there is an ongoing identity crisis with white Americans, which seems to be the case, it’s arguable that a more inclusive education about race and inequity would give them the vocabulary to have conversations rather than avoiding them.