What does it say about us that we deem February, the shortest and (in the Upper Midwest, at least) most miserable month of the year as a time to reflect on black history? I have no idea how the designation came about, but the cynic in me has always regarded this segregation of history as indicative of our country’s utterly dysfunctional approach to race relations. Luckily, I’m able to set the cynicism aside enough to appreciate the value of bringing a much-needed spotlight on black Americans’ contributions to our nation. And it’s not just about doing those folks a favor; it enriches me in return.
Without Black History Month, for instance, would I have been able to see original Freedom Rider Hank Thomas speak to a rapt audience of students and faculty at UW-Green Bay a few years ago? Probably not. I know the Freedom Riders’ story well, but to hear a flesh-and-blood participant relate the terror and the triumph of their mission was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I wouldn’t have seen students of both races, some shaking, others near tears or stuttering as though addressing a demigod during the Q&A session. Nor would I have gone home with the comforting notion that Thomas’ message of nonviolent resistance, of quiet but determined commitment to social change, represented a measure of hope for our society, even if that message reached just one student.
Without Black History Month, would I have learned of Vel Phillips, who despite her contributions to Milwaukee, Wisconsin and U.S. history escaped mention in my school textbooks and classes? While we were studying the adventures of Jean Nicolet and Bob La Follette, Phillips was breaking down racial and gender barriers and fighting for a downtrodden class of people that 95 percent of us Wisconsinites never knew existed. No, it took Black History Month to bring her story to my attention. Suddenly it wasn’t just something that happened in the South, or in New York City. I don’t think it was a deliberate omission by the people charged with educating Wisconsin school children, but I do feel I was deprived for having missed this chapter of our state’s history, and richer for having subsequently discovered it through the flurry of dedicated promotion that occurs in February.
The cynic in me returns, however, as I wonder what happens to these stories on March 1. Why are we content, having done our annual duty, to put that book back on the “blacks only” shelf, only to collect dust until next February? Such is the quandary of Black History Month, which, by its designation, obscures the underlying principle that what we’re really seeing is, after all, American history.