7 common misconceptions about Black History

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1.       Black history is not really history

This is a common assertion put forth around this time of year by those with a very rudimentary understanding of what history in general actually is. The main error being, they consider history to be an objective discipline rather than something entirely composed of a particular person’s or group’s perspective on a set of events. History is more comparable to a narrative than a fact list. What is and is not covered, how it is presented and the goal of the historian(s) all factor into the finished product. Just because most historians crafting the textbooks many of our schools teach from tend to omit or minimize the contributions of African-American, does not mean they do not exist. In fact, I am sure of it as I have taken both undergraduate and graduate level courses on the subject.


2.       It is about celebrating black celebrities

Unfortunately, there are many (black and non-black alike) who may pigeonhole black history into a list of “accomplishments.” Particularly, it comes down to who was the first black person to do anything. For certain fields and events, it is truly a powerful moment when a black person is the first to integrate major league baseball, go into outer space or be sworn in as president. But when a certain former supermodel commemorates themselves for black history because they were the first black on the cover of the swimsuit edition, perhaps a line or two should be drawn.

At its roots, all history is built upon the backs of people whose names we will never know, yet whose work and sacrifices we owe much to. The idea that to be “historical” someone must be a politician, military leader, scientist or famous activist is more of an elitist view of what makes history.


3.       It was given the shortest month on purpose

Black History Month originally began as Negro History Week. It was started by Carter G. Woodson, who was a black historian and journalist, in 1926. The month in which it was celebrated just so happened to be February and was eventually expanded to the entire month. But quite frankly, Mr. Woodson likely never intended for the week or month to be the only time of year black history is recognized. I am sure that ideally, he would have preferred for black accomplishments to be integrated into American history; though still respected in their own right. But prior to his work, there was no mention of blacks contributing to American history on any level. He opened eyes and ears to the idea of there being much more to how this country was built besides what was/is taught in grade school classrooms. He had to start somewhere though.


4.       It is primarily about blacks being victimized

The fact that the historical experience of African descendants in this land is filled with prejudice, discrimination and violence is well documented. However, this is certainly not the entirety of our experience. As with most things, it should always be seen with balance in order to keep a proper perspective. The struggles and sacrifices of many have also led to progress and triumphs. It should never be diminished to a list of firsts and accomplishments, parade of leaders and icons or chronicle of pain and prejudice. It is the entirety of these and other elements that collectively make up our history.


5.       Most blacks are knowledgeable in it

While it certainly would be great to imagine so, it just simply is not true. For reasons previously expressed, not much of it is included with “American” history taught in most schools. And of what is taught, it generally fails to go much further than Martin Luther King and a few other civil rights figures or inventors. The disconnection of many African-Americans from their history is also compounded by the lingering effects of slavery. People who immigrated to the US voluntarily were also able to bring many oral and written traditions from their homeland. On the other hand, enslaved Africans were intentionally dispersed among others from separate tribes and had their languages suppressed to prevent unified rebellions. When also adding in blacks often being denied education and their accomplishments being deliberately omitted, it is no surprise that so many are indeed out of touch with their heritage. Then again, the average American could tell you little about American history as well.


6.       It is racist

This sentiment is quite popular among many who cannot quite wrap their heads around why ethnicity should ever be distinguished. The argument is that calling something black history is racist because there is nothing called “white” history. But the thing is, a fish that spends its entire life underwater, is not likely to notice water’s existence. Likewise, those immersed in a culture that is so much a part of them, feel no need to even name it as such since it simply is the norm. But what those outside of that culture see is white history in what everyone else would simply call American history. The reason it is called black history is not so much to separate it from American history, but because it was already ostracized as such by the major writers of “American” history.


7.       Acknowledging it encourages division

To say that acknowledging black history encourages division, is like saying a parent who points out what makes each child unique is wrong for doing so. Although they may love each of their children equally, they also learn to recognize those traits which make them different and special in their own right. In the same way, the true strength of America is not in everyone being the same. America will be at its strongest when people from different backgrounds not only learn to unite, but also appreciate those differences in each other.

By Corey Dorsey

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