A White Man’s Take on Black History Month by Jim Brown

Jim Brown teaches AP European History and World History at Brazoswood High School. He is also a reader for the AP European History exam. I am currently recruiting Jim to join the history department at HCHS.

It’s February again and that means its Black History month. The one month a year that suddenly everyone seems aware of what’s going on (or what’s not going on) in their history class. Black history month has been around for quite a while. Americans have recognized black history annually since 1926, first as “Negro History Week” and later as “Black History Month.” What you might not know is that black history had barely begun to be studied-or even documented-when the tradition originated. Although blacks have been in America at least as far back as colonial times, it was not until the 20th century that they gained a respectable presence in the history books. – Elissa Haney

I’ve been teaching for 12 years now and every year at this time the question comes up, “What are we going to do about Black History Month?” Both colleges pose the question and students concerned that we need to recognized the accomplishments of African Americans and remember the history of Blacks in this country. Many students ask, “Why is it only one month?” My response – It doesn’t have to be. If we study Black history outside of the month of February its just as valid. I guess we’re just not “celebrating” black history.

Sometimes studying Black History can be very upsetting to both Black and White students, especially the younger ones. Images of the slave trade and Civil Rights movements can be upsetting. Movies and documentaries are meant to provoke a strong emotional reaction. I’ve had several Black students tell me that it makes them sad to see beatings and attack dogs and fire hoses. To tell you the truth, it makes me sad too. It gives me no joy to see White people abusing their power like that. My first year of teaching I was even accused of enjoying the idea of Blacks being abused and that’s why I was showing movies about it. Thirteen-year-olds can be so cruel.

The fact is, as a White person, Black history is my history too. I have grown up in a post-segregation world. I have never experienced Jim Crow or separate-but-equal, but I know that it existed and I know why it all had to end. I have been shaped by the achievements of African Americans and the Black experience in America as much as anyone in this country.

As a history teacher, I know that it is difficult to cover everything that people would like to study. In survey courses that we teach in High School it seems as if you always get too much of what you don’t like and not enough of what you enjoy. If you would like to learn more about Black History, pick up a book or just spend some time surfing the net. There are lots of great websites highlighting the accomplishments of African Americans.

Are race relations as good as they could be in America? No. The problem of the “color line”, as W.E.B. Du Bois put it, still exist. Would I like for it to improve? Yes, and I think by studying Black History we would go a long way to improving race relations


15 thoughts on “A White Man’s Take on Black History Month by Jim Brown

  1. I think this must be an odd month for blacks. As jim hinted at, there is a sesense that blacks are on stage and are the center of attention. I often hear things from whites like why do we celebrtate King day but not Robert E. Lee day? Or, there should be a white history month. I agree, black history is white history. We all make it work.

  2. We all belong to each other, and until we can stop seeing things in terms of “us vs. them,” we’re never going to figure any of this out.

    Frankly, I’m appalled by how LITTLE my college freshmen and sophomores know about history in general. I showed Mississippi Burning to my literature class at the beginning of the semester (because I love Agent Anderson as a character study) and literally NONE of my students had ever heard of the Freedom Summer. My students are, on the whole, almost entirely ignorant of the Civil Rights movement (or the conditions that precipitated it). And don’t get me stared on what they know about the Holocaust.

    Is it true what they say about a people who don’t know their own history?

  3. “Is it true what they say about a people who don’t know their own history?”

    Carter Woodson said that one cannot be a member of his or her race without knowing its history; I have found many of my black students to be the least interested in their own history or history in general. There are reasons why students know so little:

    1. Their parents read very little and do not care.
    2. Too much History Channel….Only want to watch Hitler
    3. What is a book?
    4. How will knowing history make me a lot of $?

  4. Your points are well taken, Mr. Carson. In addition, I find that my students don’t care about history because they can’t (or won’t) see how it’s relevant to their lives NOW, though not so much for monetary gain, really. They don’t see that they can make their experiences TODAY much richer and more fruitful for knowing and understanding what happened YESTERDAY. They can’t comprehend that having something in the foundational knowledge to hook new learning up to makes both the old and the new that much more deep and meaningful.

    I feel like my kids are blind, really. They have no concept of what’s going on around them and, because they don’t know their history, are failing to see that we’re on the same ride with different scenery. I feel like we ARE doomed to repeat, and I can see it happening already.

  5. Hello Edward,

    I found your blog today via the Sphere aggregator while searching for posts about Black History Month. We are presently at work here in Germany on a group project to help raise awareness about black and African history in Europe. As I have read that you are interested in visiting the country in order to further research the experiences of W.E.B. DuBois in Berlin, perhaps you would like to communicate with us and share information and knowledge. Just follow the link back to my personal blog and leave a comment at my latest post or use the email address at the lower right-hand corner of the blog homepage.

    The post by Mr. Jim Brown, A White Man’s Take on Black History Month, is refreshing.

  6. BRE

    Yes, visting archives such as those at Humboldt University is on the list; it will probably not happen until summer 2009, but I will add your blog to my blog roll and continue to follow your work. I will send you an e-mail later (if it is listed on your blog) so that we can chat about your work and objectives. Or, I will make sure I post on your blog. Thanks for the brief introduction.

  7. You can use the same email address which appears (to you only) in the comments that I have left at your blog today. Looking forward to hearing from you and inviting you into our online workgroup for black and African history in Europe.

    We may be able to help with your research on black history in Berlin and throughout Germany. Don’t forget to checkout the Black European Studies program at the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, it’s one of the best programs of its kind in Germany. Here is a link to the BEST Uni-Mainz website:

    Auf wiedersehen bis dann…

  8. I have never really been taught anything about black history, except for the one presentation or assembly that takes place in February. I think its important that we learn about theses issues so they don’t continue. I cant go a day at my school without someone making a racist joke. I think that if more people were better educated on the subject, both black and white people would have a better respect for each other.

  9. I think it would be wise to study all people groups when looking at our past. I think we should study the plight of African Americans while studying the culture of America at that time. I disagree with what happened during this time in history, but feel that it would be best understood if incorporated as a study of our culture as a whole.

  10. There will always be racism as long as members of individual races insist on identifying themselves with that particular race.

    When organizations such as the NAACP exist for the explicit reason of “advancing colored people,” how is that not inherently racist?

    The civil rights movement of MLK fought for equality. They got it. Now minorities are fighting for privilege. They’re getting that, too. Just mention the possibility of discontinuing affirmative action, and see who complains. A white student or an Asian student needs to score a 34 on the ACT to qualify for the same scholarships that a black student only needs a 27 for. Is this special privilege for the black student? Yes. Is this conversely making an implicit statement that black students are somehow handicapped and not as intelligent as white or Asian students? That argument would certainly follow as well. How could racism do anything but flourish in such an environment?

    If racism between black people and white people is ever to die in this country, it must be at the hands of the black community. Equality should be the goal; not special privilege, not reparations, not distinction or consideration of race in any way, shape, or form. Black people today have every legal right that white people do. Every access to education available (and then some.) What’s left to complain about? (Read Bill Cosby’s thoughts on that matter here.)

    There should never be a Black History Month, an NAACP, a Miss Black America contest, a United Negro College Fund, etc. Do those institutions offend you? Now substitute the world “White” in those phrases: White History Month, NAAWP, Miss White America, United Caucasian College Fund, etc. Does that offend you? If you didn’t answer both questions with the same answer, then you are a racist and you are the reason racism exists in America.

    Physician, heal thyself.

  11. African students want an understanding of history that will connect the 21st century to the 15th and 16th century. They want an understanding of history that teaches them about our great civilizations in Africa prior to any European contact, not an instant replay of our response to Jim Crow and the deep seeded racism of America year after year. This type of teaching is the responsibility of parents and teachers. Lastly, in response to Beo affirmative action was a measure designed to level the playing field for groups historically denied access. If you are so upset about it, what do you have to say about the affirmative action that was practiced for hundreds of years by white men? By the way a racist is someone who believes in the superiority of his/her race over others. All the organizations that you listed do not have a doctrine of superiority or inferiority. These organizations are about helping African Americans improve their lives. So, it is your understanding of racism that is the problem, not the organizations that you listed.

  12. Pingback: A Review of Expelled by Jim Brown « The Proletarian

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