Black History Month is a necessity that I wish wasn’t. If our country lived out her creed and our educational systems were comprehensive and integrated, the need to celebrate Black History month would not be necessary . If our country was honest about the sacrifices, contributions, heroism, and innovation of her darker siblings, this month long retrospective would not be needed. If Black people were not whited-out of the pages of our shared past, the highlight of the month may well be Valentine’s Day. Unfortunately it is not, and I don’t do President’s Day for obvious reasons.
It’s Black History Month, and I am happy to see so many brothers and sisters out here sharing knowledge and highlighting the contributions of our ancestors. I typically look forward to any opportunity to expose the rich legacies that endure despite the concerted efforts of the dominant culture to bury them. Our Foremothers and Forefathers accomplished more with less than many of us will ever even attempt. Our Ancestors did these amazing things under the specter of slavery, segregation, disenfranchisement, and the constant threat of violence. These should be celebrated, enshrined, memorialized, and imitated.
We have much to celebrate and much to be proud of, but I do wonder if we might approach things a bit differently. I will try to say this as carefully as I can. In some ways, by emphasizing the exceptional individuals from our past and then leveraging them as examples of respectability and achievement, we may actually be validating the racism that makes our celebrations necessary in the first place.
Why do Black people have to be exceptional in order to be worthy of dignity? Why must we jump through flaming hoops, and perform ridiculous fetes, in order to be counted worthy? Why must we be magical? Why is it that, even in Black History month, it seems like we are angling toward proving our respectability?
European immigrants did nothing more than get on boats and come to this continent by choice, They do not have to jump these hurdles. But our ancestors, dragged here in chains, enslaved, raped, degraded, and cut off from history, language, and culture – we must prove their worth and subsequently secure our own. We must do our part. We must be exceptional if we will be accepted. Why?
We play along with the ‘song and dance’ (pardon the pun), we color within the lines, we play by their rules, we ascribe to their standards, we emulate them, all while simultaneously outdoing them in areas where we are not supposed to excel. We shine, but guess what? They still hate us. Our attempts at respectability and acceptance have yielded little gains for us as a people.
I can hear Adolph Caesar’s words in the movie A Soldier’s Story, ‘They still hate you!’ I’m also reminded of my father-in-law, Robert Cunningham. Bobby was a Bronze Star decorated Vietnam Veteran. He once told me a story of coming home to Monroeville, Alabama with his pregnant wife in 1970. He told me of how proud he was of his uniform and light blue infantry cord. Expecting to be welcomed home, he was met with the harsh reality that despite his heroism, his country still did not accept him. His pregnant wife was forbade access to the bathroom at the Trailways Station in his hometown. He was still referred to as ‘boy’ after having been drafted and sent to war for his country.
I tell this story because Black people have been playing this game for too long. Some younger folks have become wise to it, and are frustrated with the process, and who can blame them? Black people must be exceptional in order to be accepted, and then, even then, it may not work out for you.
You see, MLK’s nonviolence was met with a government sponsored assassin’s bullet. Muhammad Ali’s vocal expressions of his religious convictions cost him possibly the most productive years of his career. Kap knelt peacefully and was met with scorn and a pink slip. Black men and women are murdered by the police and the response is ‘just comply and everything will be fine…’ except when you comply and still end up shot or hanged in a jail cell. Ask Philando Castille.
Why am I saying all this? I say this because I want us to re-imagine our approach to Black History Month. Let’s celebrate black excellence, but let’s make sure that our children realize that it is not their ‘excellence’ that makes them worthy. Let’s make sure to tell them that they possess inherent value just because they are! Let’s remind them that they are created in the image and likeness of God! Let’s make sure that they know that they mustn’t be exceptional in order to be accepted. Let’s make it known that they are worthy of dignity and respect just because God created them.
So then, let’s carry on with our celebration of Black History month, let’s highlight our successes and contributions. But let’s also remember that our value emanates from who we are and it is not simply as a product of what we do!
We are worthy just because WE ARE. We are still here, made in the image and likeness of God! Let’s celebrate our beautiful Black History –but let’s be sure that we do not demean ourselves by subtly seeking after white respectability and acceptance.
Let’s remind our beautiful Black children that they should expect acceptance. It is not something to be earned. Let’s teach them that we share an amazing, rich, deep, and spiritual past. Despite this, however, let’s teach them that they needn’t be ‘magical’ in order to make it and they shouldn’t have to be.
Let’s remind them that:
We are worthy!