After I came across this pathetic Brigham Young University (BYU) video, I felt compelled to offer, as a Black History Month gift to y’all, a little perspective.
Black history month? Why? What for? There’s no white history month?
I trust that you’re not the one saying this right now. But if this happens to be your first line of reasoning with regard to Black history, then the answer to “why” is “because of people like you.”
Why is history ever important? Because we can always do and be better. We acknowledge our shortcomings and learn from our mistakes. If we know history, we can recognize the patterns and adjust the course of action. If we know history, we can create a future that’s better than our past.
Why Black history? In a word, slavery. I don’t think folks really grasp the depth of that damage. It would ensnare generations of Black Americans over hundreds of years in struggle: for identity and dignity, acceptance and inclusion. As a result, the question remains how and where do we fit into American history? And also, how do we cement the idea that Black history is American history?
You ever seen the scramble that precedes Black people singing happy birthday to Black people? The first step usually is to decide which version we gon’ do, Stevie Wonder’s or the old tried and true. This decision, although harmless, represents what W.E.B. Du Bois called ‘double consciousness.’ Specifically, DuBois said:
It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,–an American, a Negro; two warring souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.
I mean, if we choose to go the traditional route, nobody’s being “torn asunder” or nothing. It’s just that something so simple also embodies the inherent “two-ness” that is almost impossible to escape.
I consider myself pretty fair-minded when it comes to issues of race in that I don’t run screaming that every juxtaposition of Black and white is innately racist. Rather, I can accept that we’re still figuring each other out. And in that quest, there’s gotta be some room to ask questions without fear of judgment or scorn.
Nonetheless, I’m sensitive about our disconnectedness from Blackness (by using this term, i don’t mean to imply that there exists a universal and comprehensive approach to Black culture. However, for many of us, we can call it when we see or feel it, even if we can’t settle on intellectual definition or description of it). It simply isn’t enough to pay homage to Black history by using some baritone-voiced brotha to narrate McDonald’s commercials. Or by using PSA-type interludes between shows to proudly announce that NBC or whoever “celebrates Black History Month.” Celebrate how? By saying the words? The major networks don’t even play Roots anymore.
I hate that the cats – Black folks included – at BYU “turn to BET” or watch the commercials to honor Black History Month in January, March, or April “or something like that”. I hate that Martin Luther King, Jr. is oftentimes the only luminary of Black history that ever comes to mind for folks. Malcolm X gets a little play, but he was “like, um, bad.” And that’s about the extent of it. A couple of years ago, I was discussing one of my Black Politics courses with an American immigration attorney who seemed well-versed in matters of European and Latin American history and culture. Met with Black Politics though, she said: “Black Politics? What is that, like, Martin Luther King?”
I’m offended by the lack of reverence for Black culture – from my own folks, and from others. Even as a Black man (he’s biracial, yes. But judging by his Al Green skills, culturally, he’s Black) presides over the United States of America, and the free world, folks know little to nothing about Black history and culture. For example, the dude doing the interviewing in the BYU video is doing it in Black face makeup. But more importantly, of all the students he interviewed, only 3 recognized that something wasn’t right about homie’s face. It’s not ok to be this oblivious, but it is possible because the students don’t have to know any better. Not that they don’t know any better; they don’t even have to.
In the last two years, I’ve taught several courses at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and my students’ insistence on running as far away from Blackness or Black history never ceases to amaze me. They want desperately to assert their individuality (which is cool), but do so by ignoring and even trivializing their ancestral history. While enrolled at Howard University, a premier predominantly Black college, these lil cats wanna convince themselves that living while Black plays little to no significant role in their lives. Ok.
To be sure, one can transcend race. But for how long? And how much of your soul and consciousness must you sign over in order to be post-racial? How much of your history are you willing to forget or let slide? How much shit are you willing to swallow? Let’s go back to this BYU video for a second. The interviewer asks, “would you rather date a Black guy who acts like a white guy? Or a white guy who acts like a Black guy” The question itself is ridiculous, but that’s neither here nor there because the folks answered it. And answered confidently. One girl responds, “white guys that act like Black guys are kinda tools…” But a Black guy that acts a like a white guy? “…is good. Classy.”
Just so we’re clear, guys “acting like Black guys” = bad. Guys “acting like white guys” = “good.” There’s a song by Big Bill Broonzy that goes:
If you is white, you’s alright,
if you’s brown, stick around,
but if you’s black, hmm, hmm, brother,
get back, get back, get back
But it’s not just “them” who perpetuate narratives of inferiority as they relate to Black Americans. It’s “us” too; we still celebrate the fortuitousness of being born with lighter skin and “gooder” hair. Appreciating natural hair and dark skin required effort, an almost-movement. And I mean, preference is preference, but Black folks’ complexion obsession (the contemporary manifestation of field- and house-slave tensions) still has the power to divide and devalue. And still does. See the Dark Girls documentary if you think this race stuff remains much ado about nothing.
So what next? What do we do?
Stop revising history. Stop whitewashing it. Stop dismissing it as something old, and therefore irrelevant.
Stop pretending like slavery didn’t institutionalize and inculcate (to a certain extent) racism. Stop pretending that Black Americans with their ancestry firmly rooted in America don’t have some legitimate beefs and a legitimate ax to grind with America. It is a complicated relationship imbued with egregious and protracted acts of disregard and denials of human dignity which were codified by policy.
Policy — what we stand for; what we value; who we value.
It was hard to escape Blackness this weekend, as Whitney Houston’s home going celebration seemed to be broadcast everywhere. As resistant as I am to religion, I can’t escape the enormous gravitational pull of the Black church. That music, that spirit, that connection between the ancestors and the living, and the spirit of God. It penetrates the soul, and soothes it. It is fortifying. It is uniquely ours – Black Americans’, and the world got a glimpse into what is, perhaps, as a culture, our greatest source of strength.
So what now? What next? We must celebrate Black history – and all folks’ histories – by being honest about them, and embracing the entire spectrum; the good, the bad, the ugly, the shameful. Don’t change the narrative to make it more palatable, or to make historical aggressors seem less fucked up. Tell it like it was and let us create the tools to work our way through it.
We have to acknowledge our differences and embrace the role they play, have played, or will play in our lives.
Moreover, the solution lies first in Black folks loving being Black, and all that it implies and encompasses. We have to love the triumphs and trials – Barack Obama and Flavor Flav. And our non-Black brethren gotta know that our group has room for both, and yet, is not solely defined
by either. Just as the best and worst among your group, doesn’t comprehensively tell your story.
In other words, see us like we see you. Acknowledge and respect our culture like we must also do for you.
I LOVE being Black. The history and cultural traditions are so rich, and so empowering. I wouldn’t trade it for all the good credit and enunciated r’s in the world. While I celebrate Blackness at every opportunity, you, technically, only have to do it for a month – and for the shortest month at that. Take Black History Month as an opportunity to get to know us – collectively. If you do, and someone ever asks how you celebrated Black History Month, you’ll have more to say than “I have a Black friend; I watched BET; I listened to 50 Cent.”
Ignorance is a disease, friends. Let us arm ourselves accordingly.