By Justin Cohen
Was it only just one year ago that we learned President Donald Trump didn’t really have any idea who Frederick Douglass was? After making comments at a Black History Month celebration, the contents of which suggested he thought Douglass might still be alive, the internet’s condemnation was swift. David A. Graham of The Atlantic was direct, if diplomatic, when he pointed out that, “Trump’s comments point to the superficiality of his engagement with African American culture.”
Damon Young of Very Smart Brothas, on the other hand, named the giant, white elephant in the room. “The most puzzling part of the entire non-sensical pseudo speech/rant,” Young said, “was that it seems entirely possible that Donald … doesn’t know that Frederick Douglass is, like, waaaaaay dead.”
Trump’s ignorance of basic black history, and our utter lack of surprise at that ignorance, is symptomatic of a broader void. That void lives because the average white person has little knowledge of any American narrative that does not place at its center the experiences of people whose ancestors came from Europe.
Because nature abhors a vacuum, something must fill that void. In the very best of cases, that void is filled with curiosity for cultures that are not one’s own. That version of void-filling comes with some baggage, though, as it is impossible to grapple with the actual history of this country without coming to the obvious conclusion that white people perpetrated some of history’s worst crimes in the pursuit of shaping the American dream. Several centuries of chattel slavery, coupled with the ruthless genocide of Native and First Nations peoples, are at the tip of the iceberg. Underneath the jagged edges of those most obvious examples are carefully constructed prejudices, created to justify all manner of oppression. Those prejudices, coupled with the power to enforce them, have ensured that racism persists well after the abolition of both slavery and Jim Crow.
Those same prejudices, coupled with the discomfort involved in learning about the terrible behavior of white people, means that the average white person’s void has been filled not with good-spirited curiosity, but with skepticism, denial, fear, and often hate. The actual history of this country is so painful – and the most heinous perpetrators of its crimes so obviously white – that avoiding the void altogether has been the choice du jour for generations of white Americans and their children.
And so, we arrive at February every year, when schools with large numbers of Black children and families will spend an entire month reveling in the joy, pain, and genius of their ancestors … and white children learn one or two safe Martin Luther King quotes and move on.
Is this always the case? No. As I’ve written before, I was lucky enough that my own predominantly white public elementary schools went above the call of duty. Our community was steeped in abolitionist history, and most of the faculty embraced a beyond-the-basics approach to teaching black history to white kids. We read texts by a diverse array of writers, wrestled with the ugliness of slavery, and learned about the international historical context of American racism. Did I learn enough? Absolutely not, and it will be a lifelong journey for me to understand the depth and breadth of a history that we all share, whether or not we acquiesce to participating in the perpetuation of oppression today.
On this Black History Month, we should do a lot of things, both important and joyful. We should read speeches by Sojourner Truth and see Black Panther on opening night. Spend money at Black businesses and give copies of your favorite Audre Lord essays to your friends.
Whether it feels comfortable or not to say, we also should spend more time teaching black history to white kids. In pursuit of this goal, we should prepare way ore of our white educators to do the heavy lifting on that work, as asking African-American educators to teach white children about black history is one of the most profoundly ironic requests for uncompensated labor one can imagine.
Education alone will not eradicate racism. A livelier Black History Month in his Queens elementary school probably would not have erased whatever prejudices Donald Trump learned at home. But hate thrives where ignorance festers, and the President’s ignorance is all the proof we need that too many of our children are ill-prepared to be compassionate citizens of the future. We all have work to do if that future is going to be brighter than current trends suggest.