For a little over a year now, I’ve been in the ongoing process of rewriting the American history I was taught as a child.
In my 98% white elementary, middle, & high schools, Black History Month would be presented as a celebration of things that have passed. I grew up in a small town where everyone looks the same and no one questions what they're told.
In class, every year, we would discuss slavery, but were told that it was over the the effects were long gone. I'm sure, at some point, we were led to believe that the Civil War was over money. We were taught to respect Confederate generals just as much as we were to respect heroes like Harriet Tubman. The reality of slavery was diminished, made to be a small paragraph in our text books.
We were told of the progress made by the Civil Rights Movement. We were led to believe that the movement had ended racism in America. Martin Luther King Jr had done it; he had accomplished what he had set out to do. In the 21st century, there was no more racism, no more prejudice; we were color blind.
We were told watered down stories of great heroes, radical activists, like MLK Jr, Rosa Parks, John Lewis, and more. We were led to believe that the progress in the Civil Rights Movement was accomplished by peaceful protests, hard conversations, and understanding people.
We were taught to fear the more obvious radical activists, the ones that even children's history textbooks couldn't water down, like Malcolm X and the Black Panthers. We were shown pictures that would scare us; Malcolm X with a gun in his window, the Panthers in there berets with their machine guns. We were led to believe that the ones that fought with violence were hateful, angry, mean. They hated white people; they weren't heroes.
In the last few years, though, I made the choice to see that what I was taught as a child was wrong; it was bleached history.
The reality is that my privilege as a white woman allowed me to go through life without seeing or being affected by the discrimination that still happens today. It allowed me to take the bleached history as it was and not think twice. Life as a white woman, as a white person, is easier when we are not confronting the terrible history, and current events, of people that look like us.
But we have to.
I have to.
People of color have been oppressed and ignored for too long for us to continue living in our privileged ignorance.
My re-education has been hard, but amazing.
I've had to make the continuous choice to think twice, to question how the history I was taught didn’t add up. I had to make the choice to confront my privilege, challenge the ideologies it had built in me, and to educate myself. It has been one of the hardest and most rewarding things that I have ever done.
You can imagine my surprise when I learned that MLK Jr wasn't as perfect as he seemed. Or that Malcolm X didn't hate white people, at least not at the end of his life. Or that the Black Panthers were one of the most caring, helping organizations throughout the Civil Rights movement. (Did you know that they started the program where kids can get free breakfast at school?)
The list of things that I've learned could go on and on and on. It's Black History Month and I plan on spending the rest of my life seeking out every ounce of Black History that I can. The hard part will always be confronting stories and images of how my own race has caused the tragedies and horror, but I think it's neccessary. It doesn't matter that I wasn't a part of directly implementing the oppression; I want to be a part of healing the wounds caused by it.
A big part of my re-education has been reading. Last year, I read more books by black writers than I had in all of my 22 years prior. I cried; I was angry; I learned so much. I regret that, for so long, I was so content with reading, learning, hearing, and befriending people that look just like me. The world is so much smaller, so much more plain, when we only learn from people like us.
Black History Month is so much more than I was taught to think it is. There are so many black activists, writers, artists, musicians, teachers, and more that we have never been told about, but this month creates a space where their names can be heard. There is far too little representation for People of Color, in history and today. That's why Black Panther is such a big deal. That's why the Obama's portraits were such a big deal. Black History is a thing of the past, yes, but is is also still being written and redeemed.
If you're looking to read more by black writers--which you should be--click here to see my favorite books of 2017.
If you want to read more of what it was like for me to confront my privilege, click here.
And finally, for my entire library of resources in the conversation of race in American, click here.