“The more we learn about the past,” says Dr. Antwain Hunter, “the better informed we can be about the present.”
Even as we celebrate Black History Month, many of us may not pause to fully understand this history and its importance. To learn more, we touched base with Hunter, an Associate Professor of History here at Butler University.
What first sparked your interest in history?
My dad was in the army for about the first ten years of my life. We lived on military bases for most of that time. My twin brother and I were fascinated with all of it, and this grew into an interest in military history. As I got older, I became more interested in other aspects of the past.
Your studies focus on slavery and emancipation in the Antebellum South. How did you become interested in this particular topic, and what are you working on currently?
I’m very interested in the 19th century, generally, but the institution of slavery has always drawn me in. I am really interested in how these Black folks were able to carve out space for their families and communities despite the oppression they faced. I’m currently working on a book that explores the community, legal, and family dynamics of Black people’s firearm use in North Carolina from the 1720s through the end of the U.S. Civil War. It covers both free and enslaved Black people, and at its core, the project is about what it meant for Black people to carry arms in a slave society.
As a historian, how would you describe the importance of celebrating Black History Month?
Celebrating Black History Month is critically important. The folks who ask, “What about White History Month?” are entering a bad faith argument. Many Americans, especially those who are not Black, often have a very narrow understanding of our nation’s past and one that completely ignores the experiences and contributions of Black people. We see this most obviously in the public debates around the Civil War, the Confederate flag, over-policing and state violence, etc. One cannot truly understand the American past, or our nation’s commitments to liberty and democracy, if one doesn’t understand the history of Black people. Black History is American History, but most non-Black Americans don’t really think about it as such. I think most people would easily see the importance of Black History if they took some time to take an inclusive approach to history. The students in all of my courses typically do quite well with the material, even though it is often new to them.
Are there any important facts related to Black History Month that you think people should know? Or, elements of Black History in general that you feel more people should understand?
That’s a great question. Facts are incredibly important, but I think the beauty of history lies in change over time, understanding larger systems, and thinking about the connections between different events. If I could encourage everyone to learn more about one thing, it might be the history of American democracy—there’s a long history around blocking Black people’s voting rights by both legislative shenanigans and brutal violence (carried out by both the state and other citizens). There’s a long history to this, but I would particularly point to Reconstruction after the U.S. Civil War, Freedom Summer during the Civil Rights Movement, and some of the current work being done on gerrymandering and voter ID laws.
Do you have any advice for how we can better educate one another about this history?
We can better learn about these things by being willing to be a part of the conversation and perhaps be uncomfortable at times. We all lead such busy lives that it’s incredibly easy to just not engage. We’re at a very good university—it’s a perfect time to take a class that speaks to Black History and learn something new.
As a white woman, I struggle with how to be a supportive ally for my Black friends and colleagues, as I do not want to be inconsiderate of their experiences. Do you have any advice for students like me who want to join arms in solidarity without perpetuating oppression?
That’s a good question, and it sounds like you’re starting from a good place. I similarly struggle with how to be a better ally for my friends, colleagues, and students of various identities. My approach is to start by listening to what other people’s experiences are. I also try to be very flexible. If there are ways I can help, maybe by using the privileges that I do have (as a cisgendered male with a PhD), I stand ready and willing. Sometimes, however, I might need to just stay out of the way. I try to let the people most impacted by the issue take the lead. Also, I mess up sometimes—there are a lot of things that I’m still learning about—but I’m always trying to do better. It’s an ongoing process.