Black History Myths for Black History Month

Black people demonstrating against Jim Crow laws

Debbie says:

So much of the Black History Month flood of information is about specific people — heroes in various arenas — and as much as they deserve acclaim, this coverage can also focus attention on individual achievement and away from the pattern of racist ideas.

Jessica Machado and Karen Turner, writing at Vox, invited six Black scholars and historians to select and debunk myths about Black history, invoking Nikole Hanna-Jones’ groundbreaking 1619 Project and the necessity of hearing stories of Black Americans as told by Black people. The results are — at least to me — surprising.

Here are all six:

  • Shennette Garrett-Scott focuses on the myth that no slaves had money.
  • LaGarrett King corrects the misconception of “Black Patriots” during the American Revolutionary War (and in doing so, works with one of the more controversial positions of the 1619 Project–how much slavery affected and directed the course of that war).
  • Sowande Mustakeem reminds us that the subjects of the shameful Tuskegee experiments were not actually infected with syphilis by the white scientists.  Of course, Mustakeem does this without prettifying the horror of those experiments. “Both [the infected men and the control group] were withheld from treatment of any kind for the 40 years they were observed. The men were subjected to humiliating and often painfully invasive tests and experiments including spinal taps.”
  • Douglas J. Flowe wants us to understand that Black Americans did fight back against early Jim Crow America
  • Jason Allen reminds us that crack cocaine in the ghetto was by no means the largest drug crisis of the 1980s, regardless of how it is often described.
  • Dale Allender calls out the fact that not all Black Americans were slaves before emancipation, linking back to Dr. Garrett-Scott’s first myth.

I like the way these span over 200 years of American history and vary from being about small groups of people to widespread social phenomena. With the awareness that I’m adding a White voice to an intentionally Black article, here are a couple of additional thoughts:

Dr. Allender’s concern that many people think all Blacks were enslaved until Abraham Lincoln freed (only) the slaves in the seceded states says a lot about how simplistic our concept of slavery is. He says “In reality, free Black and Black-white biracial communities existed in states such as Louisiana, Maryland, Virginia, and Ohio well before abolition. ” He doesn’t mention the phrase “free people of color”: especially in Louisiana (and some of the West Indies), thriving societies lived under this name. New Orleans even has a museum devoted to them.

Like Dr. Allender, Dr. Flowe is pushing against simplistic notions of history.

For New Negroes, the comparatively tame efforts of groups like the NAACP were not urgent enough. Most notably, they defended themselves fiercely nationwide during the bloodshed of the Red Summer of 1919 when whites attacked African Americans in multiple cities across the country. Whites may have initiated most race riots in the early Jim Crow era, but some also happened as Black people rejected the limitations placed on their life, leisure, and labor, and when they refused to fold under the weight of white supremacy. The magnitude of racial and state violence often came down upon Black people who defended themselves from police and citizens, but that did not stop some from sparking personal and collective insurrections.

My only complaint about the Vox article is that each segment is too short. I wish each of these historians had the space to write a full article about the myth they chose to explode, and I would also love to see what six — or 60 — more Black thinkers selected as other myths to undercut.