Sunday, February 03, 2013
There's No Such Thing As Black History
When I was first asked to be the guest speaker tomorrow at the NAACP campus chapter Black History Month Kickoff (a well-attended annual affair), I didn't immediately answer. I wasn't sure it was appropriate. I'm a popular teacher among the Black students. I spend a fair amount of time working to help Black students bridge whatever obstacles they face to finishing college. When it comes to race relations, I get it. And I can certainly talk at the drop of a hat. Especially about race. Or gender. Or power relations of any kind, for that matter. But there are some great young Black speakers in this region who would do a fine job of bringing an inspiring message of hope to those in attendance. So I was afraid I'd be stepping up where I should step back.
Still, I didn't want to disrespect the students who opted to ask me. After all, they're not children. They have a right to choose for themselves (don't they?). I decided I wouldn't respond to the email until the morning after I was asked and I tried to go to bed and get some sleep. But sleep wouldn't come.
I thought about calling the organization faculty/staff advisor (who I know well) to ask what she thought I should do. But that felt as if I was patronizing the student leaders. I checked my ego to see if that was somehow mixed up in the game. But how do you know that for sure? Isn't ego always mixed up in the game? Finally, I called on the Universe to handle it: "If I should do this, tell me what I'm supposed to say." And from then until ninety minutes later, I didn't get a wink of sleep until the outline for the entire set of remarks was scrawled on a legal pad on the desk in my office.
To help me make sure I'll be solid on Monday, I've decided to write it all up as my Black History Month blog post. If you're interested in what I intend to say, read on. And if you want to help me tweak this, that would be great.
I'm going to start by slapping us all upside the head with a radical idea and then I'll give the audience a Choice, a Charge, and a Challenge.
The idea? There's no such thing as Black history.
In truth, there is no such thing because, if we are talking about human history, then we're talking about all humans. Aren't we? We can talk about European history, but not without including Alexander Pushkin, the father of Russian literature (who happened to be of African descent). We can talk about Mexican history, but not without talking about the African sailors who were crossing the Atlantic Ocean back and forth hundreds of years before the Europeans got over believing the world was flat. We can even talk about U.S. history, but not without remembering that Crispus Attucks, the first man who died fighting the British as a would-be American, was a free Black man living in Boston at the time.
So if this is true, why did Carter G. Woodson create Black History Week, which eventually morphed into Black History Month? Goodness knows, a lot of White folks seem full of this question every February. And the answer is this: because White folks have the power and whoever has the power in a society gets to decide what the story of that society will sound like. And (of course) it will reflect the ideas, the contributions, and the perspectives of those in power, pushing everyone else to the back of the historical bus, if you will.
Consequently, for the past five hundred years, the chronology of history has focused almost entirely on people who look like me, to the exclusion of all others. What this meant was that, even when People of Color did remarkable things, some White person took the credit for it or buried the information so deep that no one ever asks who did whatever was done. And in fact, even when a name does pop up (like Alexander Pushkin's), it somehow escapes public knowledge that old Alex was Black.
So what am I suggesting? That we not have Black history month? No. That we expand it to twelve months per year.
While we think about that, I want to, as I said above, make several other suggestions as well. In short, I'd like to give us all a Choice, a Charge, and a Challenge.
First, I'd like to suggest that Blacks (and Whites alike), make a choice -- to know the truth. The truth about history. The truth about ourselves. And the truth about White Supremacy.
What is the truth about history? The fact is that all human history is shot through with dark-skinned people who were important to our shared story. Walter Arthur McCray, in his carefully researched and written book, The Black Presence in the Bible: Discovering the Black and African Identity of Biblical Persons and Nations, tells us that most of the major figures written about in the Bible were, according to our standards, Black, including Abraham, David, and Jesus. And that's just one example demonstrating that Black history did not start with the first slave ship on its way to a plantation somewhere.
Another truth about history is that the socially-constructed, political notion of "race" was only created by Europeans five hundred years ago or so. That may seem like a long time, but it really isn't if we hold that up to human history in general. Europeans came up with a hierarchical set of "racial" categories just five centuries ago expressly to justify exploiting People of Color so Europe (and ultimately, the United States) could get incredibly rich by stealing their land, their resources, and their populations at will. As a tool of oppression, the concept of "race" was and has continued to be very, very effective. But this is not based on the inferiority of People of Color. It's based on the ruthlessness, greed, brutality, and denial of those who first decided to call themselves "White."
Nevertheless, not all "Whites" were committed to the idea of their own superiority. Not all "Whites" accepted slavery, Jim Crow, lynching, or whatever other mechanisms were the law of the land for so long. In fact, as soon as the socially-constructed political notion of "race" reared its ugly head, there were people who looked like me, but who wrote like me and sounded like me -- even if it cost them their lives. And it sometimes did.
So, the systematic reduction of People of Color was not "just the way things were back then." The majority of White Americans in the 1800's, for example, supported White Supremacy. How do we know this? Because they stood in stark contradiction to the many who did not. These latter "White" people worked beside, lived beside, fought beside, and loved their darker brothers and sisters because they knew White Supremacy is a lie. As a matter of fact, when the NAACP was first formed in the early 1900's, four of its first six officers were White. We need to know the truth about our history.
We can choose to know the truth about ourselves, too. This is not easy. It's apparent when we look around our society that many older folks haven't made this choice. Which means that many young people aren't necessarily getting the message about how important this is or how the heck to go about it, even if they wanted to. Nevertheless, if we're spending more time on how we look than we do on what we're here to learn, we're doin' it wrong. If we're putting hours a day into Facebook, television, and the gym, so that reading books almost always falls off the bottom of the list of what we see as important, we're doin' it wrong. If our nose is more open than our mind, we're doin' it wrong. And if we're more worried about what he or she or they are sayin' about us than we are about how we can prepare ourselves to do and be what we're here to do and be (so we can get on about the doing and the being), then we've missed the point and we're liable to miss the boat.
And remember: the famous Black author James Baldwin once said, "Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced."
Another thing we can choose to know the truth about is White Supremacy. White Supremacy is not just some uneducated redneck in a pointy hood lighting a cross in somebody's yard. White Supremacy is the world view with which we have all been raised and in which we swim like little tiny fishes. White Supremacy holds that people who look like me are literally superior to People of Color. White Supremacy teaches both light-skinned and dark-skinned people to be on the same page, to believe -- or at least, fear -- that so-called "White" people should be dominant because they're better than others.
White Supremacy robbed and continues to rob people of African descent of their history, their identity, their traditions, and everything else humans need to survive physically, emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually. This is not an accident. It is without apology. And it doesn't just hurt Black folks. It hurts White folks, too, because it has them walking around thinking they're "special" -- which means they're living in lala land. Then, on top of it all, White Supremacy is so insidious that it teaches us all to believe that it doesn't even exist!
So, if a student gets to college without the skills they need to compete or even to complete the process, White Supremacy tells the teachers, the administrators, their peers, and even the students themselves that they're just inadequate to earn a college degree. White Supremacy would never want that student to realize that they were under-prepared to make sure they wouldn't be able to do it. And just in case they try to do it anyway, White Supremacy -- like a virus carried deep in the psyche of some other young Person of Color -- may actually accuse them of "acting White."
It's like throwing young people in a pond and telling them to swim or die. Some have learned to swim at some previous point along the way. Others -- miraculously -- swim by a combination of sheer grit, hard work, bull-headed determination, a flat refusal to fail, and the agonizing terror of a disenfranchised future. But others fall, broken-hearted, and convinced all too often that it's their own inadequacy and fault. And they fall, as a rule, alone.
This brings me to my next point. Once we make the Choice to learn the truth -- about history, ourselves, and White Supremacy -- I would give us all a Charge: to take care of each other. I learned years ago that the Black community takes care of its own. I remember reading a historical account, for example, of a Black slave woman who escaped her captors and then returned to her grandmother's shack, where she lived for a number of years -- in the rafters -- so she could keep an eye on her children until they were old enough to fend for themselves.
What I found particularly interesting about this story was not just the remarkable courage it took for her to leave in the first place or the mind-bending force of will it would take to return to a place she could so easily have been discovered and tortured to death. What I found particularly interesting was the fact that she was present on the scene for years while those who had held her in bondage had no idea she was even there. Now, that's community! And Black people are good at taking care of each other.
But remember White Supremacy? Well, White Supremacy wants young people of African descent to espouse the European precept of individualism that would have us abandon each other in a fit of thinking that we are not connected, that it's all about Number One. White Supremacy wants young Black men and women to imagine that, if their peer is falling, it's because they're inadequate, or worse, because they simply deserve for some reason to fall. This leaves the one who's falling to see themselves not only as abandoned, but as hopeless, so they either get defensive and act as if they don't care (though they care with all their hearts) or they go silently into the darkness White Supremacy has always prepared for any Person of Color who can be separated from the pack.
The great African-American escape artist, Harriet Tubman, once said, "I freed hundreds of slaves, but I could have freed thousands more, if they'd only known they were slaves." If you saw your brother or sister about to fall into the Gates of Hell, what would you do? Would you say nothing? Would you be too embarrassed to reach out to them? Or would you be willing to share your truth with them and listen to their truth so that both of you could triumph over evil?
Finally, having given you a Choice (to know the truth about history, ourselves, and White Supremacy); and having given you a Charge (to take care of each other as only you can do); I now want to Challenge us all to expand Black History Month to last all year long.
Who said it has to come in February? Who told us it's only appropriate to spend twenty-eight days a year celebrating African culture and African contributions and African-American beauty and all that the African diaspora has poured out onto the Earth and among its peoples for tens of thousands of years? There are websites rich with information, YouTube videos and music videos that inspire and present Black truth, films online and at every library that will -- as Bob Marley sang -- emancipate our minds from mental slavery, and books that will burst our minds at the seams. Find them. Seek them out. Read them, watch them, sing them, gather together in groups and talk about them. And see what happens when the sun of your own personal and consummately Black history rises in the sky of the human race to warm us all.