I don’t know a lot about white history.
I also don’t know much about green bean casserole, Creedence Clearwater Revival or shampoo-and-conditioner-in-one. I am, however, familiar with seasoned salt, the nuances of Blue Magic vs. Dax vs. Pink Oil Lotion, and the musical stylings of Frankie Beverly and Maze.
And, unlike many of my educated white counterparts, I know a lot about American history.
As someone who was raised around black people and partially homeschooled, the American history I learned included the understanding that the Constitution counted me as a fraction of a human being; that the Founding Fathers enshrined the enslavement of people who looked like me into that document; and that, at one point, half of the population of this country decided they’d rather stop being Americans than cancel the 246th consecutive season of slavery.
It was only recently that I came to the realization that most Americans don’t learn history in chronological order. We teach children about the bravery of George Washington and the genius of Thomas Jefferson before we even broach the subject of the peculiar institution that started 150 years before there was a Declaration of Independence.
Every third-grader in America knows the name of the Mayflower, but very few are ever taught about the White Lion and the Treasurer, which brought the first enslaved Africans to the English colonies in 1619. According to a report by the Southern Poverty Law Center, nine out of 10 high school seniors either incorrectly identified or openly admitted they weren’t sure of what caused the Civil War. Two-thirds (68 percent) of high school seniors don’t know that it took a constitutional amendment to formally end slavery.
This past October, Caucasian HBO subscribers were stunned to learn about the terrorist attack on Tulsa, Oklahoma, while the Greenwood Massacre was commonly known in Black America. I guess white people thought Game’s Black Wall Street record label was so clever!
This is not black history. This is American history.
In fact, black history is more American than the alternative version of white history that is almost based on a true story. This fictionalized version of our national past not only lends itself to ignorance; it also perpetuates the false narrative of American exceptionalism and fuels misconceptions of our present state of being.
For instance, people might reconsider our gun laws if they understood that the Second Amendment was included in the Bill of Rights to convince Virginia slaveowners, who were afraid of slave revolts and armed black soldiers, to ratify the Constitution. If they knew how Chicago’s street gangs were modeled after Irish “athletic clubs” that fueled the 1919 race riot and shaped Illinois politics, they might not wonder about the gang violence in Chicago.
If they knew about the white supremacist attempt to overthrow the government during Reconstruction, they might think differently about protecting Confederate statues such as New Orleans’ Battle of Liberty Place Monument, whose original inscription reads:
McEnery and Penn having been elected governor and lieutenant-governor by the white people, were duly installed by this overthrow of carpetbag government, ousting the usurpers, Governor Kellogg (white) and Lieutenant-Governor Antoine (colored).
United States troops took over the state government and reinstated the usurpers but the national election of November 1876 recognized white supremacy in the South and gave us our state.
If schools taught the history of redlining, no one would wonder why black schools are underfunded or black neighborhoods are poor. If they knew about how Southern racists left the Democratic party and formed the Dixiecrat party to protest integration and anti-lynching laws, they wouldn’t wonder why black people think the Republican party is considered to be the party of racism.
If they understood that Martin Luther King Jr. said more about white privilege, white moderates, and police brutality than he ever said about having dreams, they wouldn’t pretend to know what “MLK would have wanted.” If they had any idea that most white people had a negative opinion of the anti-lynching movement, the Civil Rights movement, Black suffrage, the March on Washington, the Black Power movement and the Black Lives Matter movement, they wouldn’t ever wonder why no one gives a fuck what white people think of black protest.
So, to protect the fragile ego of white America, we lie to kids and tell them Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves; that the Founding Fathers weren’t white supremacists; that slave owners weren’t racist because things were “different back then”; that the Confederate flag is part of Southern heritage; and that Martin Luther King never blamed white people for the shit that white people did.
That’s not American history. That’s white history.
And the people who point out the differences between this fictionalized great American folk tale and the truth don’t hate America. They are armed with the ability to look beyond the fantasy of our national narrative and see a complex, nuanced story where freedom simultaneously exists alongside oppression. The hypocrisy of “All men are created equal” is neither damning nor excusable. It just is.
And that’s why Black History month exists.
Don’t get me wrong. Knowing where you come from is important. But, perhaps if white people read “Honest” Abraham Lincoln’s letter explaining that he has never been “in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the black and white races,” they wouldn’t bristle at the notion that they could be a good person while still upholding the tenets of white supremacy. Perhaps they would do more to dismantle the system if they knew how America intentionally embedded inequality in its political, social, and financial institutions.
Every black person in America is acutely aware that there has never been liberty and justice for all.
They get 28 days.
Because we’re feeling generous, we’ll throw in an extra day this year.