Edith Guffey: I’m conflicted about Black History Month (Column)

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It’s February — Black History Month. I can’t count the number of times I have written or given speeches during Black History Month. It should be an easy one, right? After all, I believe in the importance of celebrating the contributions of Black Americans to this country because many of these historical contributions are too often unknown. 

But I am generally conflicted about Black History Month, because as important as it is, it also feels like a monthlong focus on the Black community pulled out once a year for show. And the rest of the year, it’s as if that history has little relevance or connection to policies, politics, how we choose to spend our money or live our lives. 

It’s as if some people want to forget why there was even a need for a “Negro History Week” in the first place. Carter Woodson didn’t dream this up in 1925 because it was a great thing to do; he saw it as one way to right a wrong. Ignoring or erasing the contributions of Black Americans is part of the legacy of slavery and white supremacy in this country.

And speaking of the legacy of slavery and white supremacy, here we are in 2022 and the Kansas Legislature is debating how issues of race should be taught in the schools. I wonder if there has been or will be a proclamation read supporting Black History Month? Will they consider the questions of why Black History Month is even needed, or can it even be acknowledged as part of the ongoing curriculum? 

What will they suggest that history and civics teachers do about teaching students about the ruling on Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka? You know, that annoying lawsuit that turned into a groundbreaking ruling that separate but equal schools are unconstitutional. How will a teacher explain this landmark ruling with no context? It is, after all, about race. And by the way, the plaintiffs in that case were represented by Justice Thurgood Marshall, certainly a leader often honored during Black History Month.

August Rudisell / The Lawrence Times This photo from Aug. 11, 2021 shows the Brown v. Board of Education mural, painted by artist Michael Young in 2018 to depict the legacy of the 1954 landmark U.S. Supreme Court desegregation case that has its roots in Topeka.

My personal internal conflict about Black History Month isn’t the real issue. I hope what is a concern to everyone is that we use Black History Month as a springboard that informs our decision-making today. 

Black History Month can remind us that there is no level playing field. And it’s our responsibility to wrestle with how that truth, our history, informs pressing questions about schools, health care, our justice system, affordable housing or any number of questions that we face as a society, a county, or a city. How will we balance the very real questions of economics and fiscal responsibility with the questions of equity and justice that are just as real and pressing? 

There are no easy answers to any of these questions, and they will require consistent, honest, unflinching engagement — not a once-a-year proclamation of support for Black History Month. That public proclamation is important, but it’s just a beginning.

For our legislators in Topeka, and others who are so deeply concerned about teaching race in schools, maybe they would benefit from a short history lesson related to race and education in Topeka. I’m sure they aren’t interested in my suggestions, but a short mile or so from the Kansas Statehouse is the Brown v. Board National Historic Site. Surely, they have all been there. If not, maybe they should visit; masks required.

— Edith Guffey recently retired from a 30-year career with the United Church of Christ. After serving at the national offices located in Cleveland, Ohio, Edith and her husband Jerry returned to Lawrence and Edith served as the Conference Minister of the Kansas-Oklahoma Conference until she retired at the end of 2021. You will find her at home in Lawrence trying to understand what it actually means to be retired and trying to figure out the complexities of the pandemic so she and Jerry can travel for fun instead of work. Read more of Edith’s work for the Times at this link.

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