Celebrate: white history?

This past week, Mennonite Women USA sent out its bi-monthly newsletter, The Grapevine. In it, we invited everyone to celebrate Black women writers as a part of Black History Month. It was a small section of the newsletter with the poem “Phenomenal Woman” by Dr. Maya Angelou.

I was surprised—and, if I am honest, angry—when I received an email from one of our constituents stating, “I celebrate White History.” I wrestled with my emotions about receiving what I considered an egregious response to our invitation to participate in a national observance established more than 50 years ago. Black History Month started as Negro History Week, and in 1976 was expanded to a month-long celebration of Black contributions to our national story.

Battling my impulse to give a flippant and dismissive response to the email, I waited to talk with the Mennonite Women USA leadership circle. I wanted to know how they felt and what they thought would be the best response. When we met, I was relieved to discover that our diverse group of women felt as outraged by the email as I felt. I was thankful that my sisters would navigate the messy situation by my side.

Our leadership circle came up with various ideas on how to respond to the email. Some wanted to call out the author’s ignorant racism quickly and directly; others thought the comment should be ignored. That is the power of sisterhood. We meet each other in a shared space, where we listen to each other’s thoughts, ideas, joys, and pains. We honor the differences that emerge, then find a way to walk together. A couple of my sisters even offered to respond so I would not have to. They were not only willing to stand with me but also stand for me. That’s sisterhood.

Now, let’s get back to the need expressed in the email: to celebrate “white history.” I have thought a lot about the statement, and my anger has moved to pity. The writer of the email must not be blessed as I am to have a diverse group of friends. Or as blessed as I am to know that Black and White history are all wrapped up together. The history of this nation is one of diverse peoples, both indigenous and from around the globe.

Our country has worked to create various days and months to celebrate and learn about our nation’s diverse ethnic groups. I, for one, enjoy celebrating St. Patrick’s Day with our Irish siblings. One year, one of my Mexican American sisters taught me that Cinco de Mayo was a small, regional holiday in Mexico; Mexico’s national Independence Day is September 16. That surprise prompted me to learn more about Mexico’s history and its decade-long struggle for independence from Spain. This is why we highlight each other’s history: to educate ourselves and grow in unity and understanding.

This nation has celebrated the stories and accomplishments of white Americans since they arrived on American soil. Many versions of history have twisted facts to make white Americans appear superior to the other ethnic groups. By celebrating Black History Month and other special days and months highlighting the contributions of marginalized groups, we all become stronger and wiser. We chip away at our common ignorance and discover new possibilities for us as one people and nation. We Christians learn how to unite as the people of God more faithfully.

For good or evil, there is great power in the stories we call history. This month, we celebrate Black history and its powerful testimonies to resilience, intelligence, and love. Black history is all of our history.

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