Ahead of Black History Month, consider what you take for granted
Every February, I find myself trying to answer the question: What is Black history, really? For me, growing up in predominantly-white spaces, Black history was homeschool. It was the things I learned when I got off the school bus; I met Malcolm X curled up on my living room couch with my brother, watching the documentaries that my father put on. Black history was the collection of hand-me-down books in the living room bookcase; it was folk tale, the oral history of our conversations at the dining room table, where I’d eagerly share what I’d learned in class only to be stunned by a new perspective. It was there that I realized that my founding fathers were slave owners, that I learned what Juneteenth was and what the 13th Amendment wasn’t.
The purpose of my “homeschooling” was educational, sure, but it was also more — it was preservation. It was a means of piecing together a record out of what we knew and what we were willing to learn. It was a way of training our eyes and ears to recognize where we’d been omitted, and to fill that silence. This fractured attempt to make sense of American history was our way of excavating our own legacy, and in a way, reminding ourselves that we existed. We were missing from the history we learned about, so we had to go looking for ourselves. We knew the onus was on us because oftentimes, no one else even noticed we weren’t there.
I was reminded of this childhood impulse when I learned that our own African and African-American Studies (AFAS) department, born of protests, demanded by the Association of Black Collegians, was established not only for the sake of Black students’ education, “but for our very survival.” That department — the youngest at our school, having only gained full department status in 2016 — is only one place to start to find this preservation of Black history in practice. The English Literature department has had courses on James Baldwin and Toni Morrison; from American Culture Studies, courses that explore Blackness and the history of medicine; from Film and Media Studies, courses on Black digital resistance to white femininity (particularly, “Karen” behavior); and from Sociology, there have been courses breaking down sociological function of the term “Black” and its connection to the city of St. Louis. Past members of our university community also have created Black history — Robert Williams, James McLeod, Brittany Packnett Cunningham and so many more — and current members are still creating it through the production of research, the creation of art, the leading of protests and more.
My “homeschooling” was a matter of making do. Now, I have the absolute privilege of access — to courses, to professors, to painstakingly-kept archives and to a city rife with history. Every student on this campus does.
I imagine that Black History Month feels, for some, rarer than it should — like 28 days of visibility within 365 of business as usual. The month is often a reminder of what many of us have never had the luxury of forgetting. The categorization of “Black history” is born of necessity; it does not, however, exist to reassure you when you dissociate it from American history. Nor does Black History Month exist to fill a quota of confrontation with a more truthful historical record.
The American urge — or should I say privilege — to compartmentalize history is unsettling and all the more unforgivable in the face of all the information we have access to. Faced, as I presume nearly all of us were, with an experienced whitewashing of history, it’s our responsibility to participate in an active and ongoing process of learning, unlearning and relearning. Let this month be a reminder, as it is for me, to continue this process — or, let it be the catalyst that convinces you to start.
The term “Black history” doesn’t indicate possession, either. It’s history that is mine, but it’s also yours. Make a plan to enroll in a class. Go to a lecture — the Brown school is offering several across the next few weeks. Celebrate Black art: Go see what the Kemper museum has to offer this month, or support the Black Anthology show. Introduce yourself to the people who built this history, the events that shaped it, the places that it flourished in. It cannot be done passively.
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