In my first blog on the talk I gave at Wellington College, I focused on the purposes of history. In this second part, I will look at why I think that race-based versions of history such as Black History Month need to be rejected.
Carl Linnaeus was a Swedish botanist, physician and zoologist. His best known work is “Systema Naturae” in which he introduced the hierarchical classification of animals, plants and minerals. He also included his ideas on the five “varieties” of human beings. While grouping humans and attributing them with a set of characteristics was nothing new, the scientific nature of the classification during the enlightment period was.
Linnaeus was by no means alone in such classifications, as the belief in polygenism (the idea that different groups of people or races had different origins) was widespread unlike monogenism (single origin). There were a variety of racial classifications although the systems we know best that were underpinned by scientific racism – the USA and South Africa – were centred on the differences between black and white in particular. The histories of these two nations, plus Britain’s role in the slave trade, tend to be the focus for the stories and narratives that underpin Black History Month.
The origins of Black History Month stem from Negro History Week in the US. Interestingly, there was debate even at the time whether there was a need for a separate history of black people as the history of black people in the US was American History (a view that Morgan Freeman has put forward in recent times). Woodson was of his time and would have believed in racial classifications. He wanted black people to understand the role that their race had played and believed that their contributions to American and world history were neglected as a results of racism. Woodson believed that education and increasing contacts among blacks and whites could reduce racism and promoted the study of African-American history partly for that purpose. He was in the end attempting to expand the scope of the knowledge of history and contribute to that which existed.
In order to understand the morphing of Negro History Week into Black History Month however, we need to understand the split in the civil rights movement in the 1960s.
The split in the civil rights movement is almost entirely ignored in black history month accounts. King’s legacy seems to be summed up by his “I have a dream” speech. King and Malcolm X differed in many important respects, which underpin the common narrative of Black History Month.
Malcolm X did not reject scientific racism and the taxonomies of different races. He believed that the races were different and that segregation was necessary. His major point of difference was that the characteristics attributed to the race were incorrect. Thus his idea of race was simply a revised version of Linnaeus’s racial classification, emphasising the superiority of the black race compared to the white race. This view led to Black Power movements and the revised Black History Month. Unlike Negro History week, Black History Month was not an attempt to add the contributions of black Americans to American history but was a version of history in direct opposition to white history and it goes for it tit for tat.
In the UK, the introduction of Black History Month preceded the 1988 National Curriculum by one year. It was introduced by Akyaaba Addai-Sebo during his spell as the Greater London Council Special Projects Coordinator. The introduction of Black History Month was rooted in the idea of the Black Atlantic, promoted by academics such as Paul Gilroy. The Black Atlantic was the idea that a joint black culture could be formed based on African, Black American, Black British and Caribbean cultures.
In order to establish a link between the experiences of black people, Black History Month often conflates the histories of the the US, South Africa and the UK.
The race based nature of black history month is never referred to. Yet it is clearly a repackaged version of Linnaeus. Changing the characteristics of the black race to positive and white to negative, still promotes the racial classification based on scientific racism. This feeds into the later movements such as Black Lives Matter, which actively promotes segregation, Why is My Curriculum White? which pits a white curriculum with a non-white one and last but not least, Rhodes Must Fall which insists on setting the arbitrary start point of history at the beginning of the colonial era.
These are racist movements, promoting racist ideas and unable to challenge racism. The attempts to reclassify racism as prejudice plus power is simply a means of deflecting from the quite obvious double-standards in black and brown people promoting ideas which white racists have done so in the past.