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Shani Dowd, LCSW

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Shani Dowd, LCSW

Shani is Director of Clinical Cultural Competency Training at Harvard Pilgrim Health Care and a member of the MSPP Board of Trustees. She is also Assistant Professor of Psychiatry, BU University School of Medicine and a faculty member at the Center for Multicultural Training in Psychology at BU. Shani has extensive experience with cultural groups.

Reflections on Black History Month

Someone asked me recently “What does Black History Month mean to you anyway?” The question was a little surprising, but it did make me reflect: What does it mean to me?

I grew up in the segregated South: what I call ‘American Apartheid’. I attended segregated schools (except for the time I lived in Europe) until high school, when integration was forced on the town I lived in. During my entire career as a student, I learned nothing about Black History, and indeed, never heard of Negro History Week, which had been created in 1926 by G. Carter Woodson, a well-known Black historian and educator. This, despite the fact that all of my teachers were Black, as were my school principals.

During my childhood, I heard it repeatedly stated as an assertion of fact, that Africa was a continent of savages, and that African Americans would have been equally savage had it not been for the intercession of whites, who bore civilization to the “Dark Continent” and did their best to civilize the slaves in their care. The only Black heroes I recall being mentioned, and celebrated were George Washington Carver, and Booker T. Washington, both of whom espoused assimilationist politics and educational policies.

It is hard to overstate the impact of this kind of message on children. It taught us to believe that we were inherently deficient, and must always look toward the teaching of whites to know what was best for us.

It was my father, a self-educated scholar of African history who contradicted these messages. He taught Black history over the dinner table, and made us repeat facts and names of Black men and women he considered important. From him I learned of W.E.B. DuBois, Harriet Tubman, Langston Hughes, Sojouner Truth, Jack Johnson, and Hiram Revels. I also learned of Queen Nzinga, Shaka Zulu, Dahomey and Mali. I quickly found that when I wrote school papers on any of these people, I was punished with an “F”, a lecture on “appropriate” topics for school papers, and occasionally a beating for “cheating”.

As an adult, I wonder how many of those adults, all Black, who reacted with such ferocity, were acting out of terror: fear for their jobs, their families, and perhaps their physical well-being. As a child, I only knew that they were calling my father a liar. This of course caused me to distrust them immensely, which later proved to be an attitude that served me well. It made me curious to know what it was they were trying to hide from me. It made me silent, so that I only shared my learning with my father, who praised my willingness to take risks in order to learn.

I was in my early thirties when Negro History Week officially became “Black History Month”. I confess to mixed feelings about the Month. If the history of Black people and other minorities and women were appropriately integrated into “American” history, we would no longer need a Black History Month. However, even today, in 2010, Americans of every hue are woefully ignorant of the contributions of Black people to the history of this nation. We still are known as slaves, athletes and entertainers, with a nod to Dr King and the occasional politician. We remain invisible as inventors, explorers, physicists, geologists, etc. The enormous contribution of Black people to the economic power of the United States is still very rarely acknowledged. Surveys continue to show that large numbers of whites believe that most Blacks are lazy and on welfare.

I am glad that the celebration of Black History Month, at least once a year, forces television to display our art. It forces school teachers to unearth new facts to teach, and schoolchildren to do a bit of research. It forces everyone to acknowledge that we have made contributions. Children now in school are exposed at least once a year to some information about the history and achievements of Black Americans other than Barack Obama and Michael Jordan. An African American high school junior said to me last year, “My class thinks that we [Black people] didn’t do anything once we got out of slavery.” The need to educate continues, and history has given us good reason to believe that we cannot trust our American institutions to do a good job with our history.

I am, for all these reasons, thankful for Black History Month. Without it, I suspect people would start to believe that racism was dead, and there was no longer any need to celebrate the myriad accomplishments of Black people in the United States. So for now, I celebrate every year with my friends and colleagues.

Updated 10/5/11