As we end Black History Month I’m basking in all the celebration and recognition that the month brought. Facebook and Twitter were crowded with posts of famous and never heard of Black historical figures. Folks who were fundamental in building and growing our country. Folks who made significant contributions to our culture and science. Folks who fought for social changes that we all privilege from today.
Each year I get to bask in all this recognition and celebration throughout the city and the nation. And also each year, I hear, “Why didn’t we ever learn this before?”. These people and moments in history that we are so proud of in February haven’t been presented in our classrooms. We haven’t had the opportunity to see them on a regular basis. Blacks who played large roles in significant moments in our history are barely mentioned, if at all, when the story is told. How can we spend these moments celebrating and recognizing since 1926 (when we first started Negro History Week) and it hasn’t created space for us to have this information as a regular part of our collective lives?
How? Here’s how. It is missing the apology. The celebration without the apology says there isn’t a collective need; that the history of marginalized groups can be contained to one month. When there is no apology, that says loud and clear, we can ignore the pain of the past. We ignore how our current structure was created and nurtured.
I recently watched the documentary, “Where to Invade Next”. In one segment Michael Moore is talking with students in Germany and they are proud to regularly learn about the Holocaust and take responsibility for it. They don’t cover it in 2 pages of a 350-page book. They engross themselves in it and put reminders of it on the street signs. Why? So, they don’t forget and repeat the atrocities. What I’m asking for is small apologies every day, that state a commitment to change and not repeating the past. Little messages that acknowledge that this country doesn’t have an equal playing field, because we have never rectified the history that created privilege and marginalization.
It might look something like this in my life. Next time I am invited to a grand opening the invitation would say, we’d like to acknowledge that the history of paying immigrant labor low wages has helped the economy of this country and likely this company specifically. We remember this day the 145 immigrant women that were killed in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory and will be working our tails off to make sure that the laws that came after that tragedy and many others set up to support workers will be enforced in this new business. And, the next time I drive into a National Park the ranger at the entrance would hand me a brochure and say, thanks for being here, we know that the long running Jim Crow policy often refused to let people of color explore our public lands and that has contributed to hiking, camping and other outdoor activities being deemed “White People Activities”, so we’re glad you’re here, we’re working to do some increased outreach to communities of color in our marketing and hope to increase the development of parks in urban areas. And when we next vote and rows of women are putting their I Voted stickers on the grave of Susan B. Anthony, those same women will take a moment to acknowledge that women and Black men were pitted against each other in the process of getting the vote. They will say, we know that Ms. Anthony often spoke out against Black men getting the vote saying they weren’t intelligent enough and White suffragettes didn’t allow Black suffragettes to march alongside them, so I’m also going to go put a sticker on the grave of Black suffragette, Ida B. Wells.
I do not call for punishment or reparations, just assurance that people of privilege are aware that the complete US History dictates that apology is needed and that continued acknowledgement may reduce current injustices. Know Better, Do Better.