Every February, my distant Facebook “friends,” members of a wide array of conservative Facebook pages and groups, inundate my newsfeed with the same 60 Minutes interview with Morgan Freeman. In the interview, Freeman argues that there should not be a Black History Month, claiming that the solution to racism is to “stop talking about it.” Undoubtedly, “post-racial” conservatives find solace in hearing (the conveniently black) Morgan Freeman assure them that racism will dissipate once we all simply ignore it. For those of us who recognize that racism is alive and demands active attention, Freeman’s message is difficult to swallow. Nevertheless, if we cast this argument aside and disentangle Freeman’s overall message from the far-right context in which we typically find it interwoven, the grievances he has with Black History Month are justifiable: Black History Month marginalizes black history’s role in American history.
American culture has been continually influenced by black culture; American art, literature, music, sports, science, and fashion all depending on the innovations and contributions of black people. If the United States identifies itself with freedom and equality, then the initial enslavement and continued oppression of its black population serve as reminders that it has not yet realized the identity it has set forth. Racism is foundational to the United States, implicitly found in the Constitution as compromises between northern and southern states. American history cannot be understood without recognizing black history as well.
Morgan Freeman says he does not want a Black History Month because “black history is American history.” According to Freeman, Black History Month creates an unnecessary separation between American history and black history. He asks pointedly, “You’re going to relegate my history to a month?” The relegation of black history to a particular month ensures that the history will be submerged for a majority of the year, since a clear distinction between the “two” histories is being made. Perhaps Freeman’s opinions about Black History Month demand validation from the black community, which, being a white man, I cannot provide. However, my experiences growing up in a largely-white suburb can offer valuable insights into (1) why Black History Month encourages white people to separate black history from American history, and (2) why conservatives embrace Freeman’s arguments so readily.
In white suburbs, the celebration of Black History Month is mostly restricted to elementary-school history classes, where several prominent figures, including Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, are re-represented year after year as being the people who ended state-sponsored racism in America through the practice of nonviolence. In this way, these classes simplify the civil rights movement by defining the struggle black people face against racism, particularly in Jim Crow South, as the struggle of black people against white people. This may be the best way to teach the civil rights movement to elementary-school students. It is imperative that white American children understand that they are born into a country that has historically given members of their race benefits at the expense of black Americans, and that at least one of their ancestors almost certainly either tacitly or overtly participated in the unequal and cruel treatment of black Americans.
On the other hand, these lessons encourage white students to identify not with the Americans demanding the rights and freedoms to which they were entitled, but with the government and citizens denying these Americans their rights. Though the stories from Black History Month cultivate hope, they often do not foster a sense of pride in the civil rights movement because white students perceive it as a reminder of their shameful history. Similarly, Martin Luther King Jr. is widely known as an inspirational figure, but he is primarily considered a black historical figure, not an American historical figure. Thus, Black History Month, in trying to celebrate the civil rights movement, splits our nation’s history into two parts: black history and American history.
In addition to celebrating the civil rights movement, Black History Month intends to honor the accomplishments of black Americans. For this reason, the accomplishments become inseparable from their the hero’s race. George Washington Carver is not an agricultural scientist; he is a black agricultural scientist. This reinforces the belief that these historical figures do not belong to American history, but only to black history. Yet, no matter an American’s race, black history is a part of his or her history, because, ideally, Americans are defined by the principles we share together. Conservatives who claim that there should not be a Black History Month because there is no White History Month fail to understand that black history is white people’s history, too.
Nevertheless, the same conservatives who express these sentiments are the ones who misinterpret Morgan Freeman’s criticism of Black History Month as sharing the same objections as their own. At one point in his interview, Freeman asks the white interviewer if he wants a White History Month, to which the interviewer replies no. To the conservatives appreciating the video, it seems as if Freeman is drawing on the often-repeated argument that “it would be racist if there was a White History Month.” However, Freeman is using the question to explain why he finds Black History Month “ridiculous”: when your history is relegated to a month, then it remains separated from the rest of American history.
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