I wouldn’t trade being black for a blank check. That pride makes me enjoy celebrations of my heritage, but I still have issues with the annual commemoration that is Black History Month. These qualms are significant enough to make familiar uneasy feelings return each February. Those memories linger because, in high school, I was often the lone black student in class. The fact that it was Black History Month simply magnified those feelings of isolation. In many ways, attending the liberal high school where I spent four years was rewarding. For one, I have the curriculum's heavy emphasis on the arts to thank for my foray into writing. But even in that liberal environment, the recognition of Black History Month felt obligatory.
That’s not to say that teachers were going through the motions of sincerity, it’s just that I always sensed a burden of responsibility. As if African-American history had to be taught because it was a progressive necessity. Because this was my history, I also felt the burden of having to own it and be involved in all discussions just like I feel it’s my duty to write about race today. Even as a teenager, I knew that I couldn’t be withdrawn when my culture was the topic of conversation. At the same time, when you’re in that position, everyone defers to you because you’re actually a black person. In that moment, the overhead lights illuminating the classroom morph into spotlights pointed directly at you.
In that moment, the overhead lights illuminating the classroom morph into spotlights pointed directly at you.
Did I have a problem with being a pillar in those discussions? Absolutely not, but the unspoken discomfort was thick enough to cut. In each discussion, whether it was about Toni Morrison’s writing or the Civil Rights Movement, I could feel classmates and teachers tip-toeing on figurative eggshells so as not to offend. We don’t live in a post-racial world, but we do live in one where no one (or at least no one I want to be around) wants to appear racist or racially insensitive. The problem is that people tripping over themselves to look enlightened or make you comfortable can have the adverse effect. In the most extreme cases, you can’t help but feel patronized. It’s almost as uncomfortable as when someone slips up with an insulting remark and those eggshells crack.
Whether it’s inside of a classroom, an office, or a television studio, it’s difficult to discuss Black History Month without the conversation broadening to race in general. Open dialogue was encouraged at my school, resulting in tangents accentuated by eye-opening comments. I vividly remember one of my few black teachers having to explain to a white student that, while blacks can be prejudiced and discriminatory, they can’t be racist because the crux of racism is power—something minorities lack. I never heard anyone ask the eye-roll-inducing "Why isn’t there a White History Month?" question, but I’m willing to bet that it crossed someone’s mind. I’m also willing to bet that someone else out there has heard those exact words, or worse. Still, there’s something more powerful than the delicate handling of Black History Month and the occasional instance of verbal diarrhea from my high school days which stands out to me years later.
Being one of few black students in a classroom during Black History Month forces you to be aware of how everyone else perceives it. My school treated it with respect, but, even during my early formative years, I saw how African-American history became a twisted commodity. It’s become a marketing opportunity, and all I can do is shake my head in disgust. Knowing that meetings about how to turn Black History Month into a 28-day advertising sprint take place has permanently stained the celebration for me.
The reason Black History Month exists is to ensure that the accomplishments of African-Americans are properly acknowledged. This is imperative, but it rings hollow when the acknowledgement is artificial. That’s precisely what triggers the inevitable feelings of loneliness under a microscope that blacks in non-diverse environments experience. As a result, it's difficult not to be conflicted about it.
In 2005, Morgan Freeman made headlines after dismissing Black History Month during a 60 Minutes interview. "I don't want a black history month," he explained. "Black history is American history." His second assertion is absolutely correct. In stark contrast to my high school experience, I attended a historically black college—Howard University, to be specific. African-American history was placed on a pedestal and taught year-round because, as Freeman said, it’s American history.
Conversations extended beyond Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, highlighting the efforts of Marcus Garvey, W.E.B Du Bois, and others. More important, they took place during the fall and spring semesters, not just one month during the winter. Like Kanye West said: "Make black history every day, I don't need a month." The other upside is that the depth of these lessons sharpened my insight about racial issues. Hearing the views of other people who looked like me in an academic environment aided my own evolution, which previous scholastic experience helped shape.
I knew that I couldn’t be withdrawn when my culture was the topic of conversation.
The Black History Month discussions I endured during high school might’ve been awkward, but they’ve had an unparalleled effect on me. I felt challenged to always speak up for my culture, or otherwise drown in self-loathing if I remained silent. At my first job out of college, a white co-worker asked if Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was instituted to honor his death. She clearly didn’t pay attention during Black History Month, or history class in general, so I corrected her without hesitation. I’d do the same to anyone, and not because I'm simply eager to pounce on every racial affair. I just think it's important to get my history, which is American history, correct.
Today is the final day of February. For some (major corporations, for example), African-American history will become an afterthought again come midnight. But not for me. I’m still left with the memory of looking around a classroom and feeling like my race’s single representative during chats about its merits. It’s difficult in the moment, but when the scars heal, you’re left with a singular perspective. I can credit my passion for addressing matters of race to the solitude of high school Black History Month lessons. As an adult, I’m glad some good came out of that desolate place.
Julian Kimble will still be reading Toni Morrison novels on April Fool’s Day. Follow him @JRK316.