You Need To Realize That Black History Is American History

by Sa'iyda Shabazz
Originally Published: 
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Every time the month of February rolls around, I cringe. Another Black History Month is upon us and yet I’m wondering, why? Why is it that our history is relegated to one month — the shortest month of the year? The lessons we learn during the month, not to mention the historical figures rarely change. Black Americans have a rich history that goes on for more than a month. That’s why we must teach our children that Black history is American history.

Black History Month is an ongoing fight for equality. We spend so much of our time consuming the contributions of white Americans. Why is it so hard to even acknowledge Black Americans? Our history and contributions to the country are just as integral as those of white Americans. And yet, we are relegated to cramming hundreds of years of history into 28 days. It doesn’t say much to Black Americans in terms of our value to society.

Growing up, it felt like we only learned about the same maybe ten figures every February. How many times do kids need to hear about Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass before it’s just plain boring? Obviously their contributions to the conversations around slavery are hugely important. But they’re not the only ones who existed. What about the hundreds of thousands of slaves who deserve acknowledgment simply for existing?

Slavery wasn’t just a dark blemish on American history. It is a huge and integral part of American history. America was built on the backs of slaves. Literally. No one wants to believe that it’s true, but how else would things have gotten built? This country was built with the blood, sweat and tears of Black Americans and all we get is Black History Month? It hardly seems fair.

Black history goes way beyond slavery. It goes well beyond Martin Luther King Jr. too. That’s why Black History Month is important, but wouldn’t it be better if we didn’t need it? Why is it that in 2021, whiteness and white history is still the default?

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When we talk about advancements in medicine, wouldn’t it be great if we mention all the Black Americans who contributed to that? Daniel Hale Williams is one of the first doctors to perform open heart surgery. He was a Black doctor during the Reconstruction era. That is rare and should be celebrated. Black Americans have been tortured and died for the “advancement” of American medicine. Look into the experiments performed on Black men at the Tuskegee Institute.

Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman, is the one we should be thanking for dozens of lifesaving medical advancements. Her cancer cells were tested back in 1951 and then mined as immortal cells. HeLa cells as they’re known, help medical research to this day. Doctors and researchers were testing on those cells for nearly 20 years before her family found out. HeLa cells were used to develop the polio vaccine. Researchers use them to come up with treatments for cancer, AIDS and other illnesses. We only know about her because a white woman wrote about her story a few years ago and it got turned into an HBO movie.

Stories like this are why we need to focus on Black stories outside of Black History Month. American history is actively being changed by the contributions of Black Americans regularly. To try and relegate all of our history to the shortest month of the year is impossible. And yet, every year, people try.

What if, when teaching about the “space race” in the 1960s, the names Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughn were mentioned? If that would have happened, no one would have been shocked when Hidden Figures came out and revealed this truth to us.

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Black History Month isn’t enough to show just how much Black people have given to pop culture. At this point, they’re so intertwined that non-Black people don’t even realize they’re emulating Black culture. Recently, actor/director David Schwimmer said that he would love to see a Black version of Friends. Newsflash: there was. Living Single, a popular show about five Black 20-somethings that aired on FOX at the same time as Friends. And many people will tell you that Living Single is a superior show and has aged much better.

As many of us know, Elvis Presley has been hailed as the “king of rock-n-roll.” But before Elvis, there was Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who is really the grandmother of rock-n-roll. She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2019, and many people still don’t know she exists. And one of Elvis’s biggest hits, “Hound Dog,” was originally recorded by a Black woman. Big Mama Thornton’s version was released in February 1953 and became her only hit record.

Black History Month certainly doesn’t get a chance to cover modern Black history and how it affects our day to day lives.

Billie Eilish is a fashion icon in some circles. Her neon baggy clothes and alarmingly long acrylic nails? Black women were dressing like that in the ’90s, a million years before she was even born. Seriously, look at pictures of TLC from the beginning of their careers.

Black drag culture has been so grossly co-opted by the internet, people have no idea. Have you heard your teens saying, “and I oop?” Black drag performer. Every white woman loves to drop a “yas queen” because of Jonathan Van Ness from Queer Eye. Black gay men and drag queens have been saying it for years. I can write a whole essay on how white gay culture stole from Black gay culture, and further, how mainstream white culture steals from it further.

I hope that one day there isn’t a need for Black History Month. We need to make a more conscious effort to talk about Black achievement as a part of American achievement. Black people deserve acknowledgement for being an integral fiber of the fabric of this country. It’s not enough to roll out the same ten historical names every February and pat yourself on the back. Dig a little deeper and teach those names in April or May or September. Celebrate, acknowledge and familiarize yourself with modern Black history. You should not need the calendar to show you that Black history is American history.

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