What Does Black History Month Mean to this Korean American?

I’m not black. So then why do I feel personal investment in black history month? What does this time mean for me?

I recall how black history month has been recognized in the institutions I’ve attended as a student and an employee. In many ways, it’s always been treated as a celebration. We would visit the stories of exceptional black people throughout American history. These were names that we wouldn’t hear at any other time of the year. Frederick Douglass. Malcolm X. Rosa Parks. Jesse Owens. Langston Hughes. These were great people. And on this month we heard their stories, but they were told in succinct and concise paragraphs. They were treated as “others” outside the “normal” canon of American heroes.  Fringe heroes in a world of other heroes.

Our education systems perpetuate the dominant culture as efficiently as other institutions, and the real crime is that education is still marketed as a path towards the American Dream. Malcolm X pointed out that in South Africa, at least they were honest about their racism, while we tell a story and act inconsistently from that story. And black history month is a great example of this. We tell the story that we acknowledge the heroes of black culture while we imprison them at alarming rates, segregate them in neighborhoods and schools, kill them with impunity, and punish them into poverty.

This is a tourist form of curriculum. It’s a visit into a culture, only to treat them as an “other” and only to resume “normal” curriculum when it’s over. So what am I saying? Should we get rid of black history month? If you’re asking me, do what you want with black history month, that’s a narrative that’s pushed onto us. What I really want is justice, and if black history month helps towards that goal, then so be it. And justice won’t happen with a tourist curriculum, it will come from commitment and the action to make hard choices by all people.

I’m a Korean-American. What does this matter to me? As an aspiring scholar, I’m walking in the footsteps of giants who have fought for social justice their whole lives and have made great sacrifices to that goal. In our American history, none stand stronger than the courageous black people who have endured slavery, institutionalized poverty, incaraceration, murder, and so many more unspeakable injustices. Their history is not a bright and happy one. The heroes are heroes because they excelled in spite of oppression. They can be, should be, and are the leaders of our civil rights movements. No one can pretend to know how it feels to be black in America if you aren’t black in America.

So what does black history month mean to me? It’s not just a celebration of the heroes. Even though we should definitely do that. It’s also a great reminder of all the work that still needs to be done. Remember the heroes, but commit yourself to this struggle for social justice.

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