Bob Braun: What we need is a White History Month





It's the shortest month, Black History Month, so, in a few days, pictures of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Frederick Douglass and other heroes of February will be taken down from classrooms and school hallway bulletin boards.

It's time both for more-spring-related décor, and recognition of a different ethnic group. In like a lion, out like a lamb. Leprechauns and shamrocks. That sort of thing.

That's just the way of things, but what is troublesome about Black History Month is not its brevity, but rather the passive voice nature of so much of what is taught about the most searing conflict in the nation's history.

As if things just happened to other people, but were never caused by anyone.

Africans were kidnapped and sold into slavery.

They were chained up and shipped to North America.

Families were destroyed because they were sold without regard to kinship.

Many African-American leaders were murdered .

Those who know good writing complain that the passive voice denies readers an active, narrative string. If all these things happened to people, who was responsible?

Or, as African-British journalist Gary Younge put it elegantly in The Nation, "So the objects of racism are many but the subjects few. In removing the instigators, the historians remove the agency and, in the final reckoning, the historical responsibility."

As a consequence, we all know Rosa Parks was arrested after she refused to move to the back of the bus, but few recognize the name of James Blake, the Montgomery bus driver who ordered her to move.

Not that Blake really matters that much. He was simply a pawn in the game, following the orders, the rules of the road, the customs of the day.

No one really causes injustice; it just sort of happens. ...

What Black History Month is too polite to teach in school is that life is a zero-sum game of limited resources and benefits in which there are always winners and losers. In the scramble for benefits -- educational, financial, medical -- an inequitable distribution means some will have more and -- not, just "and," but because -- some will have less. ...

What we need, as Younge suggests, is not a Black History Month, but a white history month, and lots of them. We need schools to teach how the majority benefited from policies, laws and customs that kept slaves in poverty and isolation.

And still do.


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