My last semester of college, one of my apartment-mates invited me and another of our roommates to a special meeting of our campus Black Student Association, of which she was a member. An African-American English professor was leading a special program, and since our other roommate and I were English majors, she thought we might like to come. I’d kind of wanted to attend BSA with her sometime anyway, so I was glad for the opportunity.
But I felt less sure about it all as I sat awkward and silent in the circle that evening, one of only two Anglo girls in the room. I wondered if my black roommate felt uncomfortable too, having brought two very white friends to a BSA meeting.
Then the professor started to speak. She passed out sheets of paper listed with the names of important figures in African-American history, and we had to mix up the group, connect with people we didn’t know, and find the answers together for what each of these history-makers did. Strangely enough, as we began to mix and mingle, the discomfort in the room dissipated. Suddenly we weren’t so very aware of our differing skin colors—we were just a group of students working through what felt like just another class assignment, comparing notes and laughing and trying to find the answers together.
And the professor told us something I haven’t forgotten.
“You should all know these names,” she said. “If you’re black, you should know them because this is your history. If you’re not black, you should know them because this is American history.”
I guess that sums up for me why Black History month—this month of February—is important. I know sometimes those of us of European ancestry wonder, “Why have a Black (or Native American) History month when we don’t have a White History month?” And others have addressed that question better than I can, like in this article here. Black History really just is American history, but it includes important pieces of that history that have often been left out. And until writers and thinkers like James Baldwin and Langston Hughes and Malcolm X and W.E.B. Du Bois are fairly included in our national historical consciousness, it helps to set aside some time to especially notice, remember, and commemorate them.
And no, I didn’t know any of those names above when I first went to that BSA meeting. But I do now, partly thanks to the initial awareness sparked that evening, partly because of tutoring students at a community college where the diverse student body and faculty have led to a fairly broad inclusion of writing and reading material in the curriculum.
I’m thankful for what I’ve learned over the past few years about American History in all its colors (even if it isn’t always easy to learn). I’m especially thankful for the friends who have so graciously helped me to learn. One of them, my critique partner Sandra Barnes, wrote my very favorite Black History piece this year on her new website and blog. Check it out here—whatever color your piece of American History might be, I think you’ll be blessed.