Every February someone asks, “Why is there a Black History Month? When is ‘White History Month’?”
The question isn’t necessarily malicious, but the fact that it comes up so much is in itself an answer: If you don’t think you need to learn anything, it’s often because you don’t know what you don’t know.
Black History Month came about because traditional teaching of American history purposefully left out black people and their roles. African American scholar Carter G. Woodson came up with the idea of Negro History Week in 1926 because he feared the effect that void of knowledge could have on black youngsters: “Those who have no record of what their forebears have accomplished lose the inspiration which comes from the teaching of biography and history.”
The same is true for any of us; ignorance of history robs us, not just of facts and understanding but of ideas and inspiration.
While Woodson may have envisioned Negro History Week (it evolved into Black History Month, declared officially in 1976 by President Gerald Ford) as a remedy needed especially by black children, all Americans are better off with a fuller picture of how the world we know came to be.
Of course, it would be preferable if there were no need for extra effort on African American history —if there hadn’t been centuries of its deliberate suppression. But there were centuries of deliberate suppression, and in the resulting ignorance, some Americans don’t see a problem.
That same phenomenon — call it a vision problem — underlies much of the racial rancor in America today. It’s easier to believe the worst about people from other tribes when you don’t know very much about them.
It’s easy to think Black History Month is an unnecessary gimmick if you’ve never heard of any important figures beyond Martin Luther King, Jr.
It’s easy to scoff at Black Lives Matter if no one you love has known the fear of walking through a neighborhood where you “don’t belong,” trying to avoid any look or movement that could be misinterpreted as threatening.
It’s easy to shrug at separate and unequal neighborhoods and figure that’s just how it is if you’ve never heard of the redlining, unequal lending and other invisible forces that severely limited blacks’ residential opportunities.
It’s easy to dismiss the Jim Crow era as a 50-years-gone problem with drinking fountains if you don’t know about the violence and terror that kept blacks in their place in the pre-Civil Rights south.
Of course, the vision problem affects all of us and works in multiple directions. We Americans are woefully ignorant of history in general, including very recent history.
It’s easy to assume that a Trump voter must share the president’s bragging and racial demagoguery if you don’t know any families who’ve seen their working-class prosperity disappear amid globalization and technology change.
It’s easy to believe Central American migrants are terrible parents for putting their children through such a dangerous trek if you know nothing of the violence and chaos they are fleeing.
As with so much of the public hostility in American life today, a healthy dose of humility could be a great help. If we all recognized how much we don’t know about each other and the world beyond our own experience, we might not be so quick to judge, disapprove and condemn.
All history matters, and Americans’ knowledge of history is deficient in more than just the stories of African Americans.
But because the black American experience is so central to American history and was uniquely suppressed, February’s annual reminder and celebration is something all Americans can share.