Some people attribute the above quote to Winston Churchill but more than likely it is much older. Regardless who said it there is some truth in its message.
Every society has two groups of people – the dominant group and the minority group. These two groups are not called majority and minority because it is not about numbers but power and advantage. The dominant group in a society is the group in power; the group that has the advantage. The minority group is not in power, and thus, is disadvantaged. The dominant group makes the rules and writes the history. The minority group has to learn the culture, values, and beliefs of the dominant group. The minority group has to follow the rules of the dominant group while the dominant group does not necessarily have to know and follow the rules of the minority group.
For example, the early history of the United States was written by the dominant group in our society most often referred to as WASPs (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants). Thus, Columbus (a white European) discovered a “new-world” even though people were already here (I know Columbus was not part of the WASP, but he was part of their history). Furthermore, according to the dominant group’s history, Minute-Men were revolutionaries, Indians were savages, slavery was important to our economy, and Communism was evil. The history of our country looks quite different from the perspective of 18th century Britain, 20th century Europeans, or through the eyes of blacks and indigenous Americans. This is neither a critique nor commendation of the dominant group, just a statement of the way things are; and it’s the way things are not just in our country but in every country.
“History is written by the victors.”
The history of our country is full of the exploits and explorations of some truly heroic people – George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Lewis & Clarke, Daniel Boone, Davy Crocket, Henry Ford, Dwight Eisenhower, Martin Luther King Jr., and Norman Schwarzkopf. Of course this is a very small list. A plethora of other names could be added. But the one thing any list would have in common is that the names on that list would be dominated by the dominant group. That fact doesn’t take away from the greatness and influence of the dominant group any more than the mentioning of Martin Luther King Jr. takes away from the other names in my list. It’s just the nature of history for history to reflect the dominant group in a society more than the minority groups in that society. As a result, the minority group HAS to learn the history and culture of the dominant group, but the dominant group does not HAVE to learn the histories or cultures of the minority groups. (Did you notice there were no women, or Native-Americans in my list? Did they have no contributions to make?)
It is for this reason that Black History Month is important! If the dominant group does not intentionally highlight the contributions to their history made by the minority groups, the minority groups histories run the risk of being lost forever.
When I was growing up, in the south, attending public and private schools, about the only black people we discussed in history class were Booker T. Washington, George Washington Carver, and Fredrick Douglas. If you are counting, that’s 3 individuals! I’m sure there were more, but I doubt it reached double-digits. Surely there were more than 10 blacks who contributed to our country! To be honest, since I was in school in the 70s and 80s, we didn’t even talk about Dr. King a whole lot, and when we did, I was usually left with the impression that he was a trouble maker.
It was later in life (after college) mainly through my own readings that I learned of Crispus Attucks, B.K. Bruce, Dr. Charles Richard Drew, Matthew Henson, W.E.B. DuBois, the Buffalo Soldiers, and the Tuskegee Airmen. Learning about these black American heroes did nothing to lessen the admiration I felt for the customary historical figures. If anything, it gave me a fuller understanding of the complexities and richness of our country’s history.
Here are four reasons I believe Black History Month is important.
It’s about INTEGRATION: Quite often I hear people from the dominant group say that all Black History Month does is continue the racial divide in our country. Somehow, they say, we need to get beyond labels like African-American or Black-American or Hispanic-American or Native-American and just be Americans. I agree with the sentiment, but I don’t understand how discussing the contributions people of color have made to our country segregates us even more. In my opinion, the purpose for stressing the history of ethnic minorities is to more integrate their wonderful stories into the overall story of our great country. Black History Month is about filling in the gaps of our history and getting a more colorful portrait of who we are and from whence we came.
- It’s about CELEBRATION: The United States is unique in the vast diversity that makes up our population. Our diversity should be celebrated not ignored. It is through learning and sharing and celebrating our varied cultures that we learn to love and accept our differences. Recognizing Black History Month makes me more appreciative of the struggles and hardships my brothers and sisters of color have experienced. Their experience is different from mine but just as important as mine. Through learning their culture I learn a lot about my own culture, and that’s worth celebrating.
- It’s about RECOGNITION: I don’t want to live in a “color blind” society. God made all the colors of the rainbow and all the shades and hues of humanity show His glory and creativity. All people are created in His image. Ultimately all of us are people of color. None of us are “clear.” While it is absolutely wrong and evil to judge people by the color of their skin, it is positively life-affirming to recognize, appreciate, embrace, and accept the different colors and cultures and ethnicities that make us the United States of America.
- It’s about IDENTIFICATION: I will never forget the first inaguration ceremony of President Barak Obama. I watched it with my students at Nashville State Community College. More than one of my black students (mainly the older ones) cried during the ceremony. One lady was particularly moved. I asked her what was going through her mind and she said something to this effect: “You don’t understand what this means. Now, for the first time in our history I can look at my young son and say to him, ‘Look son, you can grow up and be president one day just like Barak Obama.’ Until a black man became president, I could not say that. My son now lives in a different world than I do and he has his whole future in front of him. A future I did not have.” By recognizing the contributions of black Americans our culture instills pride in the black community and identifies them as a vital part of the American story. I think this is what Dr. Tony Evans means by “authentic self-awareness.”
There you have it, just one white guy’s perspective on Black History Month and why it is important for me to participate in it and promote it.
I used to regularly take the opportunity during February to read a book about a black American. I found it enlightening and helpful. Through these readings I learned more about Malcom X, Bass Reaves, W.E.B. DuBois, and of course, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I think I need to start doing that again.
I challenge each of you to do the same.
NOTE: The reasons behind Black History Month apply to all the other months throughout the year that we recognize the contributions of minorities to our culture and history. Below is a break down of those months.
- February – Black History Month
- March – Greek American History Month; Irish American History Month
- May – Asian Pacific American History Month; Jewish American Month
- September – Hispanic American History Month
- October – German American History Month; Italian American History Month; Polish American History Month
- November – American Indian History Month