Monday, February 09, 2009

Black History Month

I want to build on our recent discussions of the effect of Obama's presidency on race relations (see here, here, and here), by linking to Karol Collymore's post at Blue Oregon asking why we need a Black History Month. Although African-American herself, she questions whether such a device is still necessary:

A more fleshed out, integrated history would serve us all well. We could be done with "months" of Black history, womens' history, Latino history, and the histories of other cultures we don't yet acknowledge or choose to ignore. Wouldn't it be nice to rid us all of these overtures of inclusiveness and just oh, I don't know, be inclusive?

That's a nice sentiment. Sure, it'd be great to just be inclusive. But again, I really want to warn people against believing Obama's election has led to a post-racial point. As the comments to Collymore's post shows, there are a lot of racists still out there. Diversity needs to be something we constantly fight for. Multicultural perspectives are a constant struggle against a power structure that reinforces traditional narratives of history. I was talking to a member of our administration the other day. He was talking about attending a conference of administrators recently where everyone was talking about sustainability and no one was talking about diversity. It amazed him because 10 years ago it was totally opposite. While we must stress sustainability, we shouldn't think that diversity has been achieved, in the academy or anywhere else. Racism is a powerful force in American society and the election of one non-white to the presidency doesn't mean it's gone away.

I also want to stress just how important Black History Month has been to the changes in race we've seen in recent years. Racial issues have improved over the last 20 years. Young people are far more progressive about race than their parents and grandparents. What's more important is that this stretches across political lines. Even the election of that schmuck Michael Steele to the head of the Republican National Committee would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. The deification of Martin Luther King and the efforts to get black history talked about in schools is very important to this entire process. I would argue that without Black History Month, Barack Obama is not president of the United States. For as sanitized as King's message has become, it still stresses equality between the races. A lot of people now believe this. As constrained in a single month as black history is in the schools, it still serves as a yearly reminder to young people of the horrors of slavery, how African-Americans worked for equality, and what they had achieved. Students learn this over and over again and many of them truly believe it. If this was to go away in favor of a belief that we should just be more inclusive, I think many of these gains could be lost.

Oddly, I'm not sure that any similar improvement has been made in gender relations because of Women's History Month. This reinforces my belief that sexism may be much more entrenched than racism. But it could also be that women's history and gender equality don't get the same attention in the schools as African-American history. Who's the King of the women's movement? There's no single person to deify and use to explain the struggle, however simply, for children. Susan B. Anthony is so long gone and is from such a foreign time that she's not particularly useful. Plus there's no footage of her like there is of King. Who does that leave us? Gloria Steinem? Hillary Clinton? Bella Abzug? These are very important people, but I'm not sure that teachers can hang all of women's history on them. Of course, the answer is that the feminist heroes are every woman who has worked for wages, who has fought for the vote, who has fought to keep abortion legal. But not only are these issues more contentious than King's dream, but teachers also like simple, easily explainable figures, and this more complex view of women's history doesn't fit that well.

Collymore's solution is to improve the history books. As some of you know, these claims of al history textbooks stressing old white male history really makes me angry. If you look at any textbook taught on the college level, you will find them as diverse as you could possibly want; virtually every group in American history is discussed in depth and they are constantly revised to be even more diverse (as well as to make more money of course). The people who say the history textbooks are bad have rarely actually read any history textbooks.

Now, that doesn't mean there aren't problems in the schools around textbooks and diversity in teaching. Regardless of the textbook you use, if the teacher is a conservative white guy dedicated to dead white male history, this is what you are going to get. No small number of high school history teachers are conservative, as opposed to the colleges where conservatives are few and far between. Also, I'm sure there still are publishers who put out textbooks written in that old way. The problem ultimately comes down to decentralized schools and the power of local school boards. People sometimes get dead white male history because that is all the school board is going to allow. Or sometimes this is what they get because the school district is so poor that they are using 25 year old textbooks. How much historians can do about any of this is not a question I can answer.