Note: This was originally posted on a different blog back in 2007, but it still seems relevant, particularly in light of some of my recent posts about the civil rights movement. I have edited it lightly in its current form.
In a recent article from The Nation, Gary Younge asks, “Whatever happened to James Blake?” Blake is, of course, the bus driver whom Rosa Parks flatly disobeyed, sparking the Montgomery Bus Boycott and securing herself a place in history. Younge also asks about the fates of J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant (the men who murdered Emmett Till) and Victoria Price and Ruby Bates (the women who falsely accused the Scottsboro Boys of rape, landing them in prison for years).
He argues that we need a month (a “White History Month”) to talk about these people and their impact on history. Black History Month only goes so far, he claims, because “so much of [it] takes place in the passive voice. Leaders ‘get assassinated,’ patrons ‘are refused’ service, women ‘are ejected’ from public transport. … In removing the instigators, the historians remove the agency and, in the final reckoning, the historical responsibility.” To some extent, this criticism is unfair: Black History Month is intended as a celebration of black history, not as a means assigning blame.
Nevertheless, Younge makes an important point about collective responsibility. “When it comes to excelling at military conflict,” he claims, “everyone lays claim to their national identity; people will say, ‘We won World War II.’ By contrast, those who say ‘we’ raped black slaves, massacred Indians or excluded Jews from higher education are hard to come by.” Here he hits the nail on the head.
Younge laments the fact that white Americans reject blame “for what their ancestors did” or “the privileges they enjoy as a result,” but that problem won’t be solved by browbeating them with even more examples of their forebears’ atrocities. To be sure, these stories make up an important part of America’s racial heritage, and they need to be told–but deploying them as a cudgel is not likely to sway those who are resistant to an honest confrontation with our history. If anything, it’s likely to drive them straight into the arms of those peddling a self-serving “whitewashed” history that reinforces white supremacy.
Separating Rosa Parks’ story from James Blake’s does little good, and in fact, it makes no sense. Each of their actions only makes sense in relation to the other’s. On the anniversary of Emmett Till’s death, we should discuss the actions of J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant–and how Till’s mother made her son’s too-short life matter. On the anniversary of the Brown decision, we should discuss the African American lawyers who painstakingly built the case–and how whites worked to resist it. And every day, we should remove the passive voices from our discussions of the past. People made history, and they continue to do so.
I agree with Younge that we must relieve “the burden on African-Americans to recast the nation’s entire racial history in the shortest month of the year,” but instead of a white history month, what we really need is a stronger effort to incorporate our separate pasts year-round. Instead of cordoning off Black History in February, we should discuss it every day.
Too often, African American history is seen as a subset of American history, the implication being that “American history” is white unless otherwise stated. Instead, let’s acknowledge that African American history is American history.