Whatever happened to James Blake? He is probably the most famous bus driver ever. And yet when he died at age 89 in March 2002, the few papers that bothered to note his passing in an obituary ran just a few hundred words of wire copy and moved on.
Given that February is Black History Month, it is worth taking a moment to ask how such a crucial figure could be so cruelly forgotten.
Blake was the Montgomery driver who told a row of black passengers: “Y’all better make it light on yourselves and let me have those seats.” Rosa Parks was one of those passengers. She made her stand and kept her seat. The rest, as they say, is history.
Well, black history anyway. We know how African-Americans boycotted city transit for thirteen months until the segregationists caved in. We know how the boycott launched the career of a previously unheard-of preacher called Martin Luther King Jr. and made Parks an icon. In schools, bookstores and on TV there is an awful lot of talk about them in February. But nary a word about Mr. Blake. That’s because so much of Black History Month takes place in the passive voice. Leaders “get assassinated,” patrons “are refused” service, women “are ejected” from public transport. So the objects of racism are many but the subjects few. In removing the instigators, the historians remove the agency and, in the final reckoning, the historical responsibility.
There is no month when we get to talk about Blake; no opportunity to learn the fates of J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant, who murdered Emmett Till; no time set aside to keep track of Victoria Price and Ruby Bates, whose false accusations of rape against the Scottsboro Boys sent five innocent young black men to jail.
Wouldn’t everyone–particularly white people–benefit from becoming better acquainted with these histories? What we need, in short, is a White History Month.
For some this would be one racially themed history month too many. Criticisms of Black History Month from cynics, racists and purists are about as predictable as the arrival of February itself. But for all its obvious shortcomings, Black History Month helps clear a space to relate the truth about the past so we might better understand the present and navigate the future. Setting aside twenty-eight days for African-American history is insufficient, problematic and deserves our support for the same reason that affirmative action is insufficient, problematic and deserves our support. As one means to redress an entrenched imbalance, it gives us the chance to hear narratives that have been forgotten, hidden, distorted or mislaid. Like that of Claudette Colvin, the black Montgomery teenage activist who also refused to give up her seat, nine months before Rosa Parks, but was abandoned by the local civil rights establishment because she became pregnant and came from the wrong side of town.