A case for a White History Month
Whites need to acknowledge their agency in American slavery, too often the dominant narrative in Black History Month.
February is that most wonderful time of year when we pause to appreciate the triumph of African-Americans over slavery and its enduring aftermath.
But when it comes to slavery in America (and worldwide), it was Europeans who had the agency, who made the decisions to impose it, who built a society around it and who formed the policies to protect it long after it had been dismantled. Slavery is white history, not black history.
Of course, I don’t mean to belittle the amazing stories of black survival under that cruel institution. We need a sacred time to commemorate all that we have accomplished despite the holocaust waged against us and the continuing political and social efforts to subjugate our people. We are remarkable in our resilience. That is cause for celebration. Every day.
But by so readily “owning” slavery as the prevailing story of Black History Month, we are letting whites make it our history, not theirs. Instead, they get to continue to view slavery as an accident of circumstance that is long over. While we continuously analyze the people who were enslaved, we don’t examine the people who engineered and benefitted from the system. What insecurities, hungers and fears led them to ruthlessly violate the borders of sovereign nations, kidnap foreign citizens and enslave them for generations through unspeakable violence? When we allow slavery to be the topic once a year when we pause to focus on African-American history, then the question is not, “Why did whites create and impose the global enslavement of people of color?” and instead, “How can we help blacks get over it? Look, here’s how other African-Americans did it!”
I’m not the only one for whom Black History Month is a bittersweet – sometimes cynical – celebration. Carmen N’Namdi, 67, founded Nataki Talibah Schoolhouse of Detroit in 1978. Her groundbreaking social studies immersion school served Detroit-area children for 38 years. My kids were two of them.
N’Namdi warns us against the wholesale adoption of slavery as the defining experience of Africans in America.
“The word ‘slave’ itself is powerful,” said N’Namdi. “It says that you have nothing and you are nothing. You exist solely for someone else. When I was in elementary school, Native Americans had ancestors, Europeans had forefathers, and we had slaves. Our ancestors are defined by what others did to them, not by what they did for themselves.”
That theme permeates Black History Month, said N’Namdi, which is generally a celebration of “firsts.” The first African-American to make a million dollars or to enter a sport or to break the sound barrier may be the first black person to do it, but often is not the first human to do it.
“While it goes without saying that these incredible African-Americans deserve to be honored and remembered for their accomplishments reached against great odds, it’s also true that they are being honored for what whites ordinarily do,” N’Namdi said. Essentially, she added, they are being remembered for the barrier that they broke, which makes the person who set the barrier still integral to the story.
“I look forward to the day when we can stop celebrating things that nobody thought we could do,” she said.
Professor Robin DiAngelo has done fascinating work on “white fragility,” or why whites have such a hard time confronting racism. She explained why racism must be confronted by whites in a recent article in the Huffington Post:
“Because whites built and dominate all significant institutions (often at the expense of and on the uncompensated labor of other groups), their interests are embedded in the foundation of U.S. society,” she wrote. “While individual whites may be against racism, they still benefit from the distribution of resources controlled by their group. Yes, an individual person of color can sit at the tables of power, but the overwhelming majority of decision-makers will be white. Yes, white people can have problems and face barriers, but systematic racism won’t be one of them. This distinction – between individual prejudice and a system of unequal institutionalized racial power – is fundamental.”
I join the ranks of people who argue that if there’s a Black History Month, there ought to be a White History Month. White History Month should also be in February, so that African-Americans can be free to celebrate who we are beyond the mantle of slavery, while whites take the month to understand why they embraced it.
DESIREE COOPER IS THE AUTHOR OF "KNOW THE MOTHER," A COLLECTION OF FLASH FICTION ABOUT THE INTIMATE EXPERIENCE OF GENDER AND RACE.