February is Black History Month (click here to read last year’s Feb column for an introduction). This year it is as important as ever to ensure we talk about why these affinity months continue to be necessary in the United States.
While Black history is part of the fabric of U.S. history, much of our education and public memory is (to put it nicely) less than honest about the atrocities suffered and achievements attained by the Black community in this country.
This year’s theme is “Black Health and Wellness” focusing on the important legacy of researchers, medical practitioners and other healers as well as future possibilities for true well-being in the Black community. In the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic we continue to see disproportionate impacts on the Black and African American community and it is also critical to recognize the many key contributions that have been excluded from most cataloguing of medical achievements in the U.S. This is just a short, introductory list:
- In 1721, enslaved African Onesimus shared the way his community had been successful inoculating against smallpox. This was used for soldiers and later led to advancements in such inoculations.
- Emmett Chappelle worked as a biochemist for NASA. He was an inventor who holds 14 patents and is renowned for his work on bioluminescence.
- Charles R. Drew was a cutting edge physician and researcher who developed the technology and practice to effectively “bank” blood. He was also a vocal advocate for not excluding African-American blood from plasma-supply banks. When the military decided it could be used but must be stored separately Drew resigned from his positions.
- Jane Cooke Wright’s work and research was some of the most groundbreaking advancements in chemotherapy and cancer treatment. She was a founding member (the only woman) of the American Society of Clinical Oncology.
- Joycelyn Elders was the first African-American Surgeon General (appointed in 1993 by President Clinton). She was a pediatric endocrinologist and has taught at University of Arkansas for decades. Elders is known for her unwavering advocacy for comprehensive sex education for young people.
While we honor Black History Month this year, we continue to see myriad attacks on sharing all kinds of information that might make some people uncomfortable. Much of the information and history that is targeted is in fact difficult to face – and should be.
In order to create real, systemic and sustainable change, we have to lean into discomfort. Quite frankly, just in order to live effectively in our larger society we have to be honest and transparent about the shameful parts of the past as well as the good. It should feel horrific to revisit the realities of colonization, slavery, the Holocaust, the Jim Crow era and police violence.
There are no redeeming narratives to tell about genocide, violent dehumanization, abuse and systemic discrimination. But ignoring or eliminating this information will not protect young people from difficult truths. Rather it will leave them fundamentally unprepared to navigate the diverse and complex world they inhabit. It creates enormous gaps in knowledge and doesn’t give children very much credit when it comes to their ability to process complicated and upsetting information.
From the panic around Critical Race Theory*, attacks on Nikole Hannah-Jones’s 1619 Project**, the banning of books, to eliminating discussion of gender and sexual orientation, we are witnessing a dangerous onslaught of legislation that seeks to make any critique of the U.S. and telling of history near impossible.
None of these calls to limit exposure or the tactics to achieve it are new. In 1923, the state of Oregon outlawed texts that criticized the founders of the U.S. in any way. In the early 1980s, there was a surge of challenges to books which led to the librarian created Banned Books Week. In the 1990s, Lynne Cheney led a movement to fight new standards in history teaching that she said “lacked a tone of affirmation.” Florida has seen more than its share of book bans and some scholars note a pattern in the locations (the southern U.S.) of book bans as well as the authors and topics. Notably most books that are challenged are written by White women, people of color and LGBTQIA+ authors (Knox, 2019).
It is important to note that the backlash about these topics and books centers the feelings and needs of members of the dominant culture. Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) must talk about racism and LGBTQIA+ folks must discuss heterosexism and transphobia because they face it as an everyday condition in their lived experience – adults and children alike. This is a painful reality that should be part of the education of every White person and cisgender or heterosexual individual as well.
Ignoring what has happened and continues to happen to marginalized and minoritized communities does not make it go away. We must do more to address violence and discrimination and in order to do so we have to understand how we arrived at this point in history. We have to interrogate our taken-for-granted assumptions about why things are the way they are.
It will never be enough to leverage privilege and power for change when we erase the very knowledge that will help us fight for a more humane and equitable future. It is important to question who stands to benefit and who will suffer from limiting access and engagement with certain works and parts of history. In whatever ways we have capacity, we should all seek information to better understand the world around us and engage with a balance of grace and accountability.
*Critical race theory is just one framework developed in the 1980s by Kimberlé Crenshaw, Derrick Bell and other legal scholars in order to examine the social construction of race, the systemic nature of racism, and how that shows up in the American legal system. It has since evolved to use in many academic disciplines. A conservative activist, Christopher Rufo has taken credit for turning Critical Race Theory into public villain number one in the “culture wars.”
**The 1619 Project began in 2019 when author and journalist Nikole Hannah Jones in partnership with The New York Times Magazine. The long-form journalism endeavor aims to re-examine the legacy of slavery in the history in the United States beginning with the arrival of the first enslaved people from Africa in 1619.
This article was written by Jennifer Sandoval, Ph.D., Associate Professor and Assistant Director of Inclusive Culture. She can be contacted at Jennifer.firstname.lastname@example.org. Edited by Iulia Popescu.
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