So this is Black History Month (And what have you done?)
Last month, former Saturday Night Live funny lady and current real-life crazy person Victoria Jackson expressed a thought that all too many people have secretly shared or tweeted about from the rock they’ve been living under: “Why is there a Black History Month, but not a White History Month?”
“White men,” Jackson said, “invented rockets, space travel, airplanes, the automobile, the English language, the U.S.A., most medical advances, electricity, television, telescopes, microscopes, Ivy League universities, the computer, the Internet and on and on. I think white men should be praised and respected.”
That’s quite an impressive list for people who might have had much greater access to opportunity than so many people of color did at any given point in history.
Although I’m not discrediting the accomplishments made by any amazing human, the reasons for “not having” a White History Month should seem obvious. White Americans were not usually denied citizenship, owned as property or systematically and constitutionally prejudiced against for the sake of benefiting another group of people.
While they may not remain so, they have long been the majority, and all of the history lessons I had growing up ? even if not completely accurately ? never failed to represent them. You don’t get White History Month, you get White History Every Single Day.
For all of those Jackson-types who think it’s racist to celebrate Black History Month, there are also those who joke that it is racist that the celebration happens during the shortest month of the year.
Black History Month was founded in 1926 by scholar Carter G. Woodsen, and was originally called Negro History Week. Woodsen spent the majority of his life trying to educate all people about the many contributions made throughout history by black men and women. February was designated as the month to celebrate, not because white people hate doing nice things for long periods of time, but because both Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln were born during that month.
In a 2005 interview with "60 Minutes’s" Mike Wallace, esteemed actor Morgan Freeman explained what he thought of Woodsen’s legacy. When asked about Black History Month, Freeman answered, “Ridiculous. You’re going to relegate my history to a month? I don’t want a Black History Month. Black history is American history.”
It was a great point by Freeman, who famously illustrated the opinion that not all people of color have to celebrate their “designated” months in the same way or at all and that the experiences of one person is not necessarily the experience and mindset of every one.
This past Sunday, Comedian Lisa Lampanelli, “Queen of Mean” and “equal opportunity insulter,” tweeted a photo of herself with fellow writer Lena Dunham at the Writers Guild Awards with the caption, “Me and my n?a @LenaDunham of @HBOGirls — I love this beyotch!!”
As a usual fan of Lampanelli’s, I saw the photo pop up on my Twitter feed as it was posted and was immediately outraged, but hardly surprised. I felt like Lampanelli’s post in some way “ruined” Black History Month.
Lampanelli, who grew up as an Italian-American in Connecticut, has also said “If you don't love everybody, then you can't make fun of anybody. I think people can sense that I have respect and love for different ethnic groups, different sexual persuasions and the different celebrities that I make fun of.”
It may be a far of a stretch to say that rhetoric used by people like Lampanelli negatively affects the success of a Black History Month. There may not be a “right way” for anyone to celebrate history months. No one has the power to “ruin” a celebratory month, but we all possess the power to enhance it with the respect we show toward it.
There is something undeniably special about large groups of people getting excited at the same time about the accomplishments of game-changing people of color. If anything, Hispanic Heritage Month or Black History Month serve as a little extra push toward greatness, a reminder that for every Jan Brewer, there’s a César Chávez. The impact of preserving these histories reaches far beyond a calendar and goes deep into the hearts of so many people striving for the same greatness.
The history of people of color is American history. If these months don’t necessarily guarantee 28 (or if you’re lucky, 30) days of peace, harmony and utmost reverence for the people they are highlighting, perhaps they serve as a check point for racial consciousness and the ways by which all Americans regard and respect matters of race.
As long as there are Victoria Jacksons around, we might need a lot more Februaries.
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