Last year I had a ton of fun using Women’s History Month (March) to research and learn about some of the people and events that are often conveniently overlooked in conventional education. As a woman, it was incredibly inspiring to see how women had played a significant role in history, despite their relative invisibility.
This year, I decided that I needed to do a similar project for African American History Month. To my shame, I realized that when I thought of African American history, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., the Civil War, and Lincoln were the only people/events that came to mind because those were the only ones I ever heard emphasized. Even then, the Civil War and Lincoln held the forefront in my mind. Civil War books abound ad nauseum, and the number of biographies and novels written about Lincoln in the last few years would lead an archeologist to think that he single-handedly won the Civil War.
I wasn’t satisfied with that association of African American history because I knew that, like women’s history, there were many people who were invisible in the shadow of the white, male-dominated story that I had learned.
So I set out to rectify this gap in my knowledge (I know it will take me longer than a month to do that, but hell, I’m trying!). While I intended to learn about the history of a minority group, I found myself shocked to also be learning about my own White privilege.
It didn’t take me long to realize that Lincoln really wasn’t the hero of the Civil War.
Or of African American history in general.
On the one hand, that thought seems obvious now, but it was a huge epiphany a few weeks ago. Did signing a piece of paper that acknowledged what should have been evident from the beginning make him qualified to be the face of freedom?
Well, thinking about the other human rights fights, I would say no. I can’t even remember the name of the Presidents who was in office when women gained most of their rights, or whether various politicians were in favor or against those rights.
For that matter, if Obama signs an executive order declaring that marriage for same-sex couples is legal, he might get credit for being an inclusive President, but he’s certainly not going to be considered the key figure in the fight for gay rights.
African American History Month is supposed to be about bringing awareness to the invisible accomplishments of African Americans, from the man who started the first free black settlement to the first Black President of the United States. It’s about letting a disenfranchised group see what has been written out of history.
Yet the obsession is with a White guy who only came into contact with the plight of slaves when he allowed it to enter his Oval Office. He wasn’t the one risking his life creeping back onto plantations and physically leading hundreds of people through the Underground Railroad. He might have taught himself to read and write, but he certainly wasn’t breaking the law and risking the loss of everything he held dear by doing so.
Where are the bestsellers written by African Americans about their experiences? Where are the movies about those books? Where are the movies and biographies and “vampire hunter” novels about Harriet Tubman or Frederick Douglas or Martin Luther King Jr.?
The reason I think Lincoln dominates the scene is because I think the U.S. is so entrenched in White privilege that, even when we’re talking about Black history, we have to somehow try to make White people look like the heroes.
The reality is too “uncomfortable.”
I know I feel discomfort in my readings! It’s nauseating to read the accounts of Frederick Douglas, Harriet Tubman, or Sojourner Truth and realize the amount of pain that White people—my ancestors—caused. It’s painful to read about real-life discrimination from the perspective of those who experienced it. Fiction is so much easier to put out of mind as “just made up.” Up until now, White privilege buffered me from the horror of White history by downplaying the importance of Black history.
I didn’t choose that buffer. But then again, I didn’t choose any of the privileges I get because of my skin color. That’s what privilege is. I’m given it automatically. And since it doesn’t make me visibly suffer (I say visibly because I think privileged groups do suffer, just not as obviously as the non-privileged groups), I benefit from the privilege of not having to be aware of my privilege.
White privilege is not easy to recognize. Even though I had already gone through a painful awakening to the fact that I have White privilege, I still failed to see how far it extended—even into the very framework of my understanding of history. It’s not just that I don’t know about key African American people and events. I’ve been led to believe that White people, like Lincoln, were also the saviors and that the White account was the important line of history to follow.
White people can never be the saviors in this story though.
Just as straight people cannot be the saviors in the fight for gay rights or men the saviors in the fight for women’s rights.
It’s not heroic to give up power that isn’t yours to begin with. It’s humane.
That’s not saying they can’t be allies, but the heroes—the real heroes—are the ones who lived through the subjugation. In the case of African Americans, the heroes are the people who survived being ripped from their homelands, packed into boats like corpses, and sold on another continent to masters who would strip them of every human right—including the right to life—without repercussions, but who, nonetheless, refused to buy the bullshit that they were less than human.
As a White woman, I don’t even feel like I have that much that I can legitimately say about this topic—especially in my current state of ignorance.
But I’m sick of hearing Lincoln praised to high heaven while it is next to impossible to find a children’s book that features a Black protagonist on the front cover without being about Africa, Civil Rights, or slavery (Seriously, the next time you go into a bookstore, or even go online, see how many books you find with non-white protagonists that stray away from those three “acceptable” topics.) I’m sick of Martin Luther King, Jr., Day going by with barely a sound, but watching grown White men reenact the Civil War every year. I’m ashamed of the fact that a book written by a White woman fictionalizing the way she imagines Black servants were treated (through the eyes of a White protagonist, to boot) makes it onto the bestseller list for almost a year while a biographical book about the exact same topic is ignored. I’m fed up with the way my race still tries to erase Black History by trying to paint themselves as the good guys.
I’m not responsible for the education I received as a child, but I am responsible for my education now. It’s hard learning to admit that I’ve been taught to look down on Black history. Admitted ignorance is vulnerable. And publicly talking about my shame is anything but fun.
Normally when I rant, I rant about something someone else did to provoke my ire. Today, I’m ranting as much at myself as I am at others.
But humility often sets the stage for amazing journeys. By being willing to admit my ignorance and take the steps to be responsible for my adult education, I’m learning about some of the most amazing people I’ve ever read about—people I wish I could have known. I’m learning, for the first time, that Black history is for me too. It includes a history of White shame, but it also includes a history of incredible Americans who overcame staggering odds.
And while my privilege might have taught me that this omitted history wasn’t important but rather superfluous to the history in text books; I have actually learned just the opposite. These are people who, in fighting for their own freedom, fought for the freedom of all because the fight for freedom and equality is the same fight, whether fought over gender, race, religion, sexuality, or socio-economic status. These are heroes and role models that everyone should know about. These are my heroes.