We live in a country constantly in flux, infinitely on the verge of progress but also threatening to regress. White people have a particular role to play in the struggle for equality. That responsibility is not to tell black people how to run a movement, or how to express frustration when progress doesn’t come soon enough. It is our responsibility to talk to other white people so that we can be better. With that in mind, I got to thinking how white people specifically can celebrate Black History Month. I also considered what not to do, and that’s where I’ll start:
Don’t complain that there is no “White History Month.”
Every month is already white history month. History classes place disproportionate emphasis on the role of white people in history, while the achievements of people of color are hugely understated. We live in a world eager to heap inordinate amounts of praise on us — we don’t get to complain about not having a month.
Don’t relegate black history to slavery and the Civil Rights Movement.
Black hands touched every historical moment you can think of (and all the ones you can’t). Understanding how slavery and the Civil Rights Movement affect the American past and present is important, but they are not the sole instances of significance in the record of black history.
With that out of the way, let’s consider: what should white people do in celebration of Black History Month?
Seek out records of black history in your community.
Starting at home is a great way to learn more about how black people have helped to build the world around you. Simply Google “Black History” + your city or state, and you’ll find a wealth of information. Local historical societies, museums, schools and libraries often hold special events and exhibits for Black History Month that you won’t want to miss. Find out how black people shaped policy and influenced government. Read about local legends and the way they lived. Browse news archives and other documentation about black life in your community. Every place has a unique story, and those stories can never be complete if you don’t explore the contributions of people unlike yourself.
Understand how black people influenced history’s biggest moments.
To varying extents, historical events we learned about in school were all subject to whitewashing—or the erasure of the stories of people of color and how they impacted those watershed moments in our past.
Learn about the black soldiers that served in the Vietnam War and what they encountered upon returning home, and then read about the black anti-war movement and its interconnectivity with other social movements of the day. Discover black scientists and inventors whose contributions play a foundational role in modern revelations. Learn about black politicians, musicians, actors, theologians, authors, and architects. No matter your particular interest, you’ll find black historical figures who influenced pillar events in vital ways.
Read books on black history and the black experience by black authors.
Fiction or nonfiction, there are volumes upon volumes of books about black life in and out of America by extraordinary black authors. On my list this month is The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson, which recounts the Great Migration of black people from the South to the North and West of the United States. Unsure where to start? Here’s a list of popular black history books from Goodreads.
Learn more about black women and men making history today.
Black history is not a relic of the past—it is made every day. Just take, for instance, this activist, who is now running for Mayor of Baltimore. Check out this politician, who is the first Muslim to be elected to the United States Congress. Or read the work of this scientist, who is studying “the natural history and behavioral phenotypes of African giant pouched rats” and blogs at Scientific American. Learn a little from this professor/filmmaker/rapper. Maybe even get some business advice from this businesswoman who was once the Director of Public Affairs for the U.S. Department of Commerce Economic Development Administration. These are the people who will appear in tomorrow’s history books, but we have the chance to see their work in action right now.
As February rolls into March, let Black History Month be the springboard for you to become more conscious of the past, present and future of the black experience. It is not your experience, and that’s okay. Realize that, by virtue of living in the United States, black people have had to become familiar with the experience of white people in this country. There are only friends to be made and knowledge to be gained by exploring black history.