On tonight’s episode of “The Simpsons,” Lisa Simpson explores her family’s historical connection to slavery and presents the results at school for Black History Month.

This was fascinating for me to watch, as my own family’s powerful connection to slavery has taken up much of my time and energy over the last decade. Being a direct descendant of the leading slave trader in U.S. history, I think I can also relate to Lisa’s worry that her family tree sometimes seems dominated by scoundrels.

Disappointingly, however, this episode perpetuates some of the most common stereotypes that dominate public perceptions about the connections of American families to the nation’s history of slavery. For, immediately after learning that the Simpson family had a connection to slavery, we hear that this story involves Simpson ancestors living in the South, and that they were, in fact, anti-slavery and risked everything they had to take part in the Underground Railroad.

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U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, in a speech recognizing Black History Month, has told employees at the Justice Department that the U.S. is “a nation of cowards” when it comes to race relations.

Holder, the first black attorney general in the nation’s history, explained that “this nation has still not come to grips with its racial past” and that, if we are to make progress in race relations, “we must feel comfortable enough with one another, and tolerant enough of each other, to have frank conversations about the racial matters that continue to divide us.”

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On Monday, I gave a series of four lectures on slavery and race in New Bedford and Fall River, Mass.

Local newspaper stories about the talks have appeared in the Fall River Herald News (“Descendant of slave trader talks at BCC“) and in the New Bedford Standard-Times (“19th century tycoon’s descendants tell of North’s role in slavery“).

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I have very mixed feelings about the designation of February as “Black History Month,” despite the opportunities it presents for those of us who regularly make public appearances to discuss our nation’s history of slavery and discrimination and its impact on our society today.

I always appreciate the opportunity to speak about the story of the DeWolf family and the legacy of our nation’s history of slavery and discrimination. Spreading the message of this blog (and of Traces of the Trade) is important to me, and Black History Month programs generally offer a positive context in which to bring this message to the middle school, high school, and college students who are usually my favorite audiences.

In short, I strongly support efforts to teach our children the full history of the United States, including the role of black Americans and such related topics as slavery and discrimination, and to encourage children to explore the meaning of this history for our society today.

However, I tend to side with those who believe that “Black History Month” usually results in limited exposure to a speaker or two, or to a brief unit on isolated topics in black history, rather than to a comprehensive curriculum about the African-American experience. What I find particularly damaging, moreover, is the pigeon-holing of “black history” into a single month and its treatment as a specialized topic, rather than as an integral part of American history.

As I often tell audiences, especially of younger people, the history of American slavery and discrimination isn’t black history, and it can’t be considered apart from the rest of the American story.

In other words, this is our shared history.

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