How can I unlearn this toxic lesson when it’s so deeply embedded in our everyday lives?
Well, Black History Month is over. Hope you enjoyed your kente-print streamers and gaze upon your decorative baobab tree. Before you gently place your commemorative Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass salt and pepper shakers back in the curio, not to be seen for another years’ time, riddle me this: What new thing have you learned about black people in this fleeting 28-day celebration? I’ll wait.
Mmm hmm. Still waitin’.
Could your awkward silence on the other side of the screen be because Black History Month, for all of its good intention, hardly seems or feels or appears to be relevant anymore? The White House released a humdinger of a proclamation, formally inspiring cable networks to color their typically lily white programming with back-to-back airings of beloved African-American classics like "A Raisin in the Sun," "The Color Purple" and "Boyz n the Hood." (Just for the month, though. Don’t be thinking you’re gonna see it in March.)
I even saw "Sounder" listed on the guide once or twice. You know it’s Black History Month when you see "Sounder" on TV.
But learning, really learning about the people, the cultures, the experiences -- outside of trips to the local soul food joint and watching reruns of "The Cosby Show" -- has diminished, if it ever really was. And Black History Month has devolved into a series of quotes, a few random speeches and community-based events that acknowledge our four-week black-a-thon on almost exclusively local levels.
Instead of cultivating the celebration to create greater understanding about who we are, especially since everybody is pushing this claim to be all multi-culti, it’s become an obligation, a bone we’re still allowed to be thrown just so we don’t holler racism. Even we don’t hoorah it like we should and it’s our damn month.
There are two basic facts that just about every American knows about black folks: We marched for civil rights and we survived slavery. (Toss in there some generalizations like “They’re all good dancers” or “I’ve never seen a black guy who couldn’t play basketball.”) The black experience is bigger than that, of course, both in America and abroad. In fact, there’s an entire diaspora that gets detached from the millions in this country but is still very much a part of black history. It’s the black history no one really talks about. Not here, anyway.
If you want to know about the cultural perceptions and climate here in America, you don’t have to look any further than the comments section of a blog post about race. That’s where the shroud of anonymity coaxes folks to unpack their real feelings and they. let. fly.
On Tuesday, I wrote a blog post acknowledging the one-year anniversary of Trayvon Martin’s murder -- not death, but murder -- for a site I’ve enjoyed writing for for two years. The readership and I rarely agree on any issue involving race -- I, the cantankerous, outspoken sistagirl and they, the audience of predominantly white women who respond to discussions on the matter by either getting defensive of their whiteness or acting like everyone is exactly the same, floating on a fluffy pink cloud of universal similarity. Either way, they get good and inflamed on the subject.
“We cannot have an honest discussion because you Janelle like to scream Racism every minute of the day. There has been absolutely no proof that Trayvon was killed because of racism, just what the poverty pimps Jesse and All said and what Msnbc doctored,” one lady barked. (The errors are hers, not mine.)
She wasn’t done. So hype was she that she added a comment immediately after her first: “When stop sceaming "racist" and stop making yourself and your daughter a victim, when things don't go your way, we can have an honest discussion. But until then, it won't happen.”
Then there was this from another reader: “I am also sick and tired of being made to feel bad, because I am white. My children have the same exact opportunities that Trayvon did. The only difference is is that I demand they get an education and discipline them when they do wrong. I also teach them values and to respect themselves and not to get pregnant until they are married or out of school, because it is much harder to make something of yourself with kids. It can be done. How about you acknowledge that 7 out of 10 kids born in the black community are born out of wedlock?” OK, that last part was totally random. But by golly, she got it off her chest.
You can’t force the change that needs to happen to correct this kind of raw hostility and antagonism in just 28 lil’ ol’ days. That’s a lot of pressure on one itty bitty month to fix what appears to be a lifetime of resentment, all bottled up and released in a short blurb on some mouthy black chick’s blog post.
But it does confirm, at least in part, why Black History Month is so glazed over: Some white folks are genuinely resentful when even confronted with the possibility of having to think outside of the familiarity of their them-ness. (So are some people in other groups, but that’s not the conversation we’re having right now, so don’t try to engage me in the my race vs. your race, tit-for-tat thing. I’m black. I’ve already been through too much).
When you’re part of a majority -- and I don’t care what statistics say, white people are still calling the shots, still running the government and still making the bulk of the money, hence they’re still the majority -- you don’t have to seize the opportunity to learn about other races or cultures unless you want to. It’s optional. Any suggestion otherwise creates static, as demonstrated so vividly above, which is actually pretty mild compared to feedback I’ve gotten.
For four short weeks, Black History Month is an opportunity to bring the authenticity of who we are to the fore. And, even by accident, someone might learn something outside of the same old same old that’s been on annual replay. I love Martin and Malcolm, Oprah and Beyonce, and of course, Harriet and Frederick, but there’s so much of our story that remains largely unheard. (Maybe we just need better PR.)
In the meantime we, you and I, can have the conversation about race anytime. I’m availing myself as a national black spokeswoman. Don’t run the risk of getting a cuss-out or, at the very least, a really nasty look by rolling up on the black lady who drives your commuter bus or the black fellow who just relocated to the office next to yours. Don’t do that. That will more than likely not end well, and race relations are shaky enough as it is.
But I am pretty pleasant, and I’m happy to stand in the gap on the things-everyone-should-know-about-Black-America line of questioning until next February, when we’ll stand on the threshold of another, hopefully better, month of juicy black history.