Black History Month, post-racial style

—Catherine R. Squires

I was pleased to be invited by NYU Press to blog about Black History Month, a celebration that some who believe we’re “post-racial” would say is unnecessary. When I was a kid, making my way in a “voluntarily” desegregated school district, I looked forward to February with a mix of anticipation and dread. Anticipation because I would be one of the few in my class to get 100% on the Black History Month quiz; dread because I was one of the few Black kids in the class, and would feel all eyes on us during the lessons geared toward the month of “special” history projects, reading assignments, and so on.

But I persevered, and one year—perhaps third grade?—I did my Black History Month poster on Benjamin Banneker: scientist, urban planner, clockmaker. I had designs on design: would I be an architect? A fashion designer? An illustrator? Banneker was a perfect fit for me, and I poured my grade school heart into doing his memory justice.

Fast forward to today: from what I can tell, my children are doing the same sort of assignments, learning the same litanies of Firsts, Festivals, and Foods that we learned in my day. While for third graders this might be on point, I have also found that the Millenial, ostensibly “post-racial” students in my university courses regularly report they got little else through middle and high school, and barely scratched the surface on more in their introductory history courses at college.

So I’d like to make a suggestion to jettison the Firsts, Festivals, and Foods trio of Black History Month for a different style of learning about Black and American history. Kids learn who the First Black astronaut was, the First Black senator, and so forth. But what happens after the First? I suggest we do away with how we teach about “Firsts,” and I’ll leave the Festivals and Foods to other, more creative minds.

Part of the power of the First is the person is supposed to disprove theories of racial inferiority. But if we do not follow through after the first to support other engineers, astronauts, and opera singers, then what? If no efforts are made to make the break in the pattern more than an accident of destiny and talent, then we leave a void into which theories of racial superiority creep back in, cloaked in the language of statistics or cultural deficiencies.

When we focus on the Firsts, and not What Followed, we allow ourselves to be seduced by the silence in between milestones of Black History. If we do not look into the gaps between the Firsts, then we fail to see the ways that other individuals, institutions, and social practices worked—often quite deliberately—to crush the spirit of those Firsts, and to make it plain that Black people who wanted to follow in their footsteps would be met with massive resistance.

So I ask that we pair the question “What Followed and Why?” with each First, to ensure that our students can understand the reasons why we still celebrate Firsts, why they remain rarities decades after slavery and Jim Crow.

What happened after Benjamin Banneker made plans for our nation’s capitol, the First Black engineer to be recognized as such by white folks? Why the gap in Black urban planners between Banneker and… well, I must admit I cannot bring to mind a famous Black urban planner. What stymied efforts to bring up generations of Bannekers to design welcoming, sustainable urban spaces to be shared by people of all colors? Why are so many urban areas still segregated, decades after the First Black mayors were elected?

Until we look closely at What Followed, and try to learn lessons from that part of our American history, our celebrations of Firsts will feel less festive and more frustrating as time goes by.

Catherine R. Squires is Associate Professor of Communication Studies at the University of Minnesota. She is the author of The Post-Racial Mystique: Media and Race in the Twenty-First Century (NYU Press, 2014).

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