Editorial: Why Black History Month?

A Perspective from a White Teacher

Image+courtesy+of+Huffington+Post
Image courtesy of Huffington Post

Image courtesy of Huffington Post

Image courtesy of Huffington Post

Al Hoffmann, Staff Advisor

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A few days ago, I had a short conversation with a few members of the Shortridge Black Student Union. Previously, I had heard that they were trying to be sure that students, particularly white students, didn’t perceive their group as promoting anti-white feelings around the school.

We talked about positive, constructive ways they can welcome everyone (which, by the way, is clearly labeled on all of their flyers and literature already) and use personal relationships to reach out to students who might not understand the mission or vision of the BSU. I applauded them for how they were handling the situation so positively, how they had all matured over the last few years greatly, but unfortunately had to remind them that this almost certainly would not be last time they faced, at best, similar misunderstandings.

During the entire conversation, I couldn’t help but feel conflicted about my role as a white man coaching black students on how to confront covert racial bias and conflict in their daily lives. I was hoping to help them build constructive dialogue, but was I really warning them not to be stereotypical angry black women and men? Was I trying to suppress their sense of urgency, watering down their sense of a call to action?

I thought about how only 2% of teachers are black men, how these students so often don’t have folks who look like them as mentors in their educational experience. My students wanted advice, but they probably could have used it from someone who had a more similar experience to themselves.


It doesn’t take a very thorough read of media headlines and history books to figure out that much of white America has issues with, or at best is confused by black American movements. Even in a very diverse and progressively-minded student body at a school like Shortridge, every year white students can be heard asking questions about why we have Black History Month, why black students have their own group, why Black Lives Matter’s moniker only seems to focus on black lives and not the lives of everyone.

I believe that there is a very simple and unfortunate answer to most of these questions, and to fully understand this answer requires that all white Americans–no matter how much they are a part of the solutions–reconcile the fact that they certainly at some level are also contributing to the problems. It can be very challenging to perceive the nearly invisible social safety nets that come with being white, especially if one’s life doesn’t feel very privileged, or just isn’t very privileged. Many things in life we often don’t notice until they are gone, but unlike many things in life, whiteness never goes away. White people don’t have the ability to perceive a life without it.  But if those nets are not perceived at some level and reflected upon, little growth toward racial reconciliation in America can be attained.

Today, I would like to focus on why Americans celebrate Black History Month. As stated earlier, the answer is very simple and unfortunate: the history of black Americans is a very brief one. Nearly all of their history was taken away when they crossed the Middle Passage.

No other group of people in American history can claim the same lack of history. First Nation Americans, who no doubt have historically been the victims of genocide and countless other unimaginable crimes against humanity, still have rich histories and traditions that span centuries upon centuries. Irish, Italian, English, Chinese, Vietnamese, Indians, Argentines, and all other immigrants from around the world who built this country can trace their families’ stories back to their native lands. All of them can and should have pride in their ethnic heritages.

But black Americans have not possessed this privilege. At its furthest reaches, despite the overwhelmingly important role black Americans have played in shaping this country, Black History in America can be traced back to the records of slave traders.

Today, with some scientific advances in genetics, people can now trace their ancestry from the comfort of their homes. The results are often emotional and surprising. But these feats of science cannot heal the historical and cultural wounds of the dishonorable chapters of America’s past. There are still black Americans alive today whose grandparents were slaves.

So, if you find yourself wondering why we have Black History Month, remember that black folks in America are still picking up the pieces of a history that was broken for them by others. Their stories deserve recognition and celebration. It is certainly the least we can do.

1 Comment

One Response to “Editorial: Why Black History Month?”

  1. Nyela on February 15th, 2018 10:56 am

    Thank You Mr. Hoffman, I respect your perspective on things. I liked how you stated some facts about our history and how you talk about the issue we face as black americans.

    [Reply]

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