Why Black History Month?

I hear this question from time to time. Why do we need a whole month for black history? Why do we need a whole month for women’s history (March)? I think my personal favorite comment is the one where someone complains there isn’t a white history/male history month. That right there tells me they don’t see it. They don’t see a world where by virtue of being a white male, you already have an advantage. Throw in upper-middle-class and you’re nearly set. Laws did not have to be written requiring employers to disregard the male gender as potential employees, or to have to hire people no matter how white their skin. White men weren’t overwhelmingly lynched in the south within the last century, for no other reason than to ‘teach them others a lesson.’ Men didn’t have to pretend to be women to go to war or get a job or have a bank account or get published. Whites didn’t have to pass for black and have no contact with their families just so they stood a chance of getting out of grinding poverty.

You’ve heard of Thomas Edison, famous inventor, generally considered a bit of a jerk. What about Lewis Latimer? Because of him,  you don’t have to hang out the window if you need to relieve yourself on the train. He also worked as a drafstsman for Alexander Graham Bell, a skill he learned while working at a patent office. The picture with the patent? That’s his. Latimer came up with a way to make lightbulb filaments last longer, improving the life of a bulb beyond even what Edison had managed, making them easier for more people to afford. Because he was working for a company and not on his own, the patent belongs to US Electric Lighting Company (this was and remains common practice). Because of his skill with electric lighting, he didn’t have to worry too much about finding work. Down the road, he was eventually hired by Edison himself, working in the legal department as a draftsman and patent expert, even testifying in court when patents were challenged.

Speaking of Edison, there’s Granville Woods; him you may have heard of. He started life working in a machine shop where railroad equipment and machinery were repaired, at the ripe old age of ten. History is silent as to why (at least, I’ve not been able to find a reason), but I presume it was because the family needed money more than he needed school. Not that that stopped him – while he was working in the machine shop, fascinated by the electricity around him, he paid other employees to teach him about their jobs, teach him what they know. His knowledge led to more challenging jobs with railroads and steel rolling mills, giving him needed experience. He then went to school to get official training as an engineer. He then served as an engineer on a British steamship, Ironsides. Despite his schooling, his expertise, and his experience, he had a difficult time getting the jobs he deserved- skin was a little too dark. He and his brother started their own company, the Woods Railway Telegraph Company. His fascination with electric and knowledge of the railways led him to remarkable inventions that he sold to companies like General Electric, Westinghouse, and the American Bell Telephone Company.

Alms Snow 022b
The Ohio wasn’t always this deep

Some think having a celebration like this is divisive, that it promotes segregation. That may well be true, considering how its handled. Students will learn about slavery and the Underground Railroad, maybe touch on Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth, have to read books and poetry by James Baldwin or Langston Hughes, learn about blues and jazz and where it may have come from – in February. Instead of having each of those topics discussed when they come up in the historical timeline, they are saved for one month a year. Once the MLK day observation was made a Federal holiday, that gave time to discuss the civil rights movement in January. Doing that around a holiday, that makes perfect sense. I’d expect something similar around President’s Day and Labor Day, and even Columbus Day, regardless of what point the class has reached.

Relegating the stories of the contributions of black Americans to a second-class status of ‘well, we have to talk about this now’ instead of ‘this is part of American history, not just black history,’ that’s what’s causing the divisiveness. When everyone, not just the ones who’ve always had the power, is able to look and say ‘that doesn’t happen anymore,’ when a commercial can be posted on YouTube without having to disable comments due to the ridiculous hate that was posted, when people can stop saying ‘well, okay, but you don’t have to rub my nose in it,’ just because they don’t want to hear anything, see anything, learn anything different from what they already know, then maybe we can stop having these special observances.

I would love to live to see that day. From what I’ve seen of the following generation, I might.


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