Do We Still Need to Call it “Black” History?

Today is the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. With that and the recent release of Lee Daniels’ “The Butler”, the history of the civil rights movement and racial relations in this country are on the forefront of discussion as of late. One of the most interesting comments I heard Daniels make in an interview was his reaction to the fact that some younger viewers questioned whether his depiction of the struggle for civil rights was what it was really like. I suppose that shows, in a way, how far things have come. If younger viewers had no relatable experiences to the characters of the movie, doesn’t that mean that things have improved? Probably so, but the concern seemed to be that current and future generations are already forgetting or not fully understanding the struggles that others went through not so terribly long ago in our history. I say “our” history because, while this and other stories like this are told from the point of view of the black community, this is not just black history.

Let me clarify that I am in no way trying to diminish the struggles and injustices that have occurred, but my question is….do we still need to distinguish “black” history from “history”? Isn’t this the collective history of our nation, both black and white? When we study the history of Nazi Germany and the atrocities that were perpetrated there, we don’t call it German history or Jewish history. It’s just “history”.

I do feel that it has been important in the past to distinguish black history in this country. Coming out of a time of so much oppression and inequality, I believe it was essential for the black community to set itself apart and call attention to its leaders, its scholars, and all of those who fought for an equality that is still a work in progress. But is that distinction still relevant today?

For me as a mother, it wasn’t until my children started studying black history in school that the distinction began to really bother me. You may wonder why I would have a problem with my children learning about black history in school, and that statement may make you think that I carry some racial prejudice, but allow me to explain. It bothered me because I did not raise my children to distinguish others by the color of their skin. If I visited one of the boys’ classrooms and I wanted to ask about another child in the class later on, I would never say “that black boy” or “that black girl”. I would find another way to describe the child. I might say, “that boy who was wearing a red shirt and glasses”. Sometimes my son might ask “does he have darker skin or lighter skin” and if he asked, then I would say, but “black” was never a descriptor that I used.

One February day while studying black history at school, my son came home with a drawing that he had made depicting a before-and-after picture of a school bus. In the “before” picture, there were a bunch of yellow circles (the heads of white people) in the front of the bus and a bunch of brown circles in the back of the bus. In the “after” picture, the yellow and brown heads were all mixed throughout the bus. I’m going to say that he was probably in about second grade at the time and I thought it was a pretty good visual for him to understand how things have changed, but it bothered me. By teaching “black” history to my children, the school system had done what I had made it a point not to do…..to distinguish others by race to my children. I felt like my efforts had been un-done.

While I think it’s relevant and necessary to learn about this aspect of history, here are the questions that I want to ask:

Is it still necessary in this country to label these events as “black” history?

By continuing to set black history apart from our collective history as a country, are we in danger of focusing on and perpetuating our differences rather than moving forward as just one race….the human race?

I would love to hear some feedback on this from any and all races.

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