Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Come Be Black For Me

I looooooove Black History Month. I love what it stands for. I love how communities, and organizations, and families, find themselves in conversations over who did what when, and what it means today. I love how, even in schools that don’t have Black students, people are focusing on the struggles, contributions and triumphs of people who look like me. I love how it grew from Negro History Week to Black History month, and how it paved the way for Hispanics, Asians and women to also have months to celebrate their struggles, contributions and triumphs. Yet, the more “conscious” we become as a people and as a nation, the more the concept of a month dedicated to Black History seems unnecessary… even disrespectful in some way. There are so many questions about the need/validity of a month dedicated to Black History. I hear so many things that are anti BHM, that I almost question my love for it; things like:

Why did they give us the shortest month of the year?
Why do we only get to celebrate Black History one month out of the year?
We always talk about the same people over and over again, what good is that?
Everybody already knows Black History, we aren’t stupid. Let’s talk about the future.
We’re all American, so we should talk about American history and not just Black history.
Why don’t we have a White History Month… Why do we only celebrate Black History?

Although many of these things contradict each other, the people who say them sometimes make good points. But then I think about Carter G. Woodson. What would Dr. Woodson think about these opinions? How would he feel if he heard people saying “they gave us” the shortest month of the year, when in reality he chose February to celebrate Negro History Week to honor the birthdays of Frederick Douglas and Abraham Lincoln. He would probably feel disrespected that people didn’t know enough about Black History to know that. What would he think about the fact that he started Negro History week to introduce topics that would encourage people join his Association for the Study of Negro Life and History and read his Journal of Negro history as part of their year-round study, only to find that people still don’t join educational societies or read educa ational journals, and just want others to spoonfeed them information on a regular basis. What would George Washing Carver say about people being tired of learning about a man who “invented the peanut”, knowing that getting respect for Black people’s intelligence was so important to him that a real study of his life would include something about allowing himself to be castrated so that he could work at Iowa State University without them fearing he would sleep with any of the White women there. He would probably feel pretty disrespected that people couldn’t even get his inventions correct despite his sacrifices. I know all the people who made history would be broken-hearted to know their sacrifices were seen as something that has nothing to do with the future, since everything they did was to make sure we had a future. Then again, the families of all our mixed race presidents before Obama (there were six) are probably glad that we still see American history as separate from Black History.

I remember back in college reading an article written by a woman who was a known historian, and well-versed on all things “Black”. She talked about her love/hate relationship with BHM; she loved being able to reach a wider audience with her information, but she hated the fact that her phone barely rang until December, and by the end of January it rang off the hook. Then in March it was quiet again. She talked about how, when someone called to schedule a presentation, no matter what they said to influence her to come speak, all she heard was: “Come be Black for Me.” I thought it was hysterical, yet insightful. Even moreso, years later when I was making the rounds during Black History Month. I would speak at grade schools, colleges, community agencies, and churches. After a few years, I recognized the pattern of calls. When someone asked me what I was doing on a particular evening in February, I would say I had to go be Black for ____________ (fill in the name of the group).

It was fun being Black for people. I loved being Black for Black people, because after people thanked me for telling them something they never knew, they would complain that they should have learned it in school. I took that opportunity to tell them to push their school board members to make sure that it’s included for their children… or just take their children to the library to learn for themselves. I loved being Black for Hispanic/Latino groups because it gave me a chance to emphasize the aspects of our cultures that were similar, as well as how we were connected in our roots. I loved being Black for White people, particularly the kids, because it gave me a change to plant multiple seeds to question why history is presented the way it is and then point them in a direction to find the answer, rather than just beat them over the head with us good / you bad facts. I remember speaking at a school that I will not name, but it rhymes with South Shore Christian High School in Levittown, N.Y. I was their first ever BHM speaker, and they really didn’t want to celebrate the day, but the growing Black student population demanded it. In the negotiations, they said I had to speak for free… which they knew would deter me… except they didn’t know me. So I paid for my flight from Buffalo to NYC. By the time I got there, I had decided to teach the faculty that voted not to pay me a lesson on the depth of Black history by using the students in an interactive presentation.

After a basic introduction, a few jokes and a few interesting facts, I gave them my affirmative action relay race analogy… which always makes White Folks go… “wow, I never thought of it that way.” I went on to say how honored I was to be there since, as a former Hempstead High Student, I knew that back in HS I wouldn’t have been allowed on their campus unless there was a sporting event. Then I told them I wanted the students to represent recorded history, with each student representing 100 years. I had two Black students line up along the wall. “These two students represent America since its independence”. Then three more Black students lined up. “These students represent the time since Columbus’ arrival, and also the time since the first arrival of slaves. These 500 years represent US History. Then I lined up a mixed group of 18 students (I wanted to use Black students, but I ran out). “These students represent the approximate duration of time going back through ancient Greece and Rome that our 500 years was patterned after.” Then I lined up 17 more White students. “These students represent the period of time that Ancient Egypt and Kush existed as modern organized societies before Ancient Greece. So as you can see, our time in the US accounts for only 1/8 of Black History, just five out of 40 students. Yes, Africans were brought as slaves 27 years after Columbus first arrived, and 12 years after Roanoke and Jamestown were settled, so we were here from the beginning of US history. But Black history is more than slavery, and abolition. It’s more than Abraham Lincoln and MLK. It’s 8x more (not including “pre-history”)

I said a lot more, but the words were barely heard because the visual was so stunning. The Black kids represented American history, and the White kids represented Black history… and there were obviously more White kids to look at. The Social Studies teacher was pissed, ‘cause he knew he had to deal with this mess when I left. But the students, Black and White, were amazed. And the principal was... impressed. Do you know that man went to his office and wrote me a check to cover my plane fair!!!! Of course, he wrote it from the students’ activity fund, but he paid me under the Little Rascal’s policy: "If we like the show we pay as we exit!" And the Black kids were proud to be Black that day. They should have been everyday, but the reality is… they weren’t. When you’re in environments that are hostile to you’re Blackness, particularly when you are judged based on the coonage of others being portrayed in the media on any given day, it isn’t always easy to be proud. That’s not self-hate, just negative affirmations having the same effect as positive affirmations. You shouldn’t need positive affirmations all the time… just once in awhile… like maybe… one month out of the year. I enjoyed being Black for you here, now you can go and enjoy being Black for someone else… you don’t even have to be Black to do it.
Happy Black History Month! Let it be the inspiration for you to continue learning and sharing for the rest of the year… just like Dr. Woodson intended.


jjbrock said...

Wow! I love it. Dwane our God has given you a wonderful gift please keep blessing us with it. The picture you painted with this post is priceless. Wow! I never looked at it that way.

ZACK said...

I don't know...

Black History Month just seems so cheesy nowadays. Plus, we really aren't relishing those accomplishments considering how our people are so divided nowadays.

I'm just not feeling the month like I used to.

D.FreeMan said...

I get turned off by BHM only because it's nothing new under the sun. I don't know who keeps making it about the same people in our history but it bores me to death. Why doesn't it talk about more people so we can learn something new each time. I mean MLK day is right before it so what we learn about him twice in a 2 week period.

I think people have transformed it to a reverse give thanks we aren't in that f*cked up situation anymore so we only celebrate the peaceful blacks. None of these heroes give you a sense of action or strength.

I personally think BHM is just like that lady said "Come and Be Black for Me" because it's not like people want to learn they just want to do something for that time. So I guess for Cinco De Mayo the same place will call a Mexican and say come and be Mexican for me. People treat it like going to have a taco and calling that they are eating mexican.

Dwane T. said...

Freeman, nothing changes until those who know change things. My point about George Washington Carver was that you can learn something new about the usual suspects... if you dig deeper. When I talk about MLK, I always stress his imprisonment, his stabbiing, and the harsh reality of sending women and children to be brutalized and killed for a greater purpose than the time he lived in.

In the same way, you introduce economic hustles that people just would not think of on their own, not because they can't, but they are mentally lazy. You take people past the doctor, lawyer, government worker thing. You do the "come be an employment development counselor for me" thing. Folks shouldn't "need" someone to tell them how to create a job, but they do. That's reality. If you do job development long enough, some folks will get it and become developers rather than clients. And if us Black History speakers do it long enough, eventually some folks will become researchers rather than students.

Anonymous said...

Well I can't argue with your parallel argument. I realize there is so much more as our history doesn't just stop in the USA.

I wonder if Black History has to be updated in a new age format. I wonder if someone made a Black History reader series or DVD's or even interactive games could that be a better way of spreading our history past 29 days!

Dwane T. said...

Freeman, if I had the time to do it I would... 'cause it's what we need. Seriously, it would take someone with more knowledge than me, 'cause even as a teacher/lecturer, my knowledge only scratches the surface.

FreeMan said...

Well I might put some wheels on the truck. I have always wanted to make a book or disc called "Where Were We" because our whole American History is like slavery and then we pop up again at Civil Rights. I'm confident there are people working on it and if not then you'll see the "Where Were We" Series on DVD soon

Dwane T. said...

I absolutely believe you will. Let me know how I can help.

By the way, we just finished a black history Bingo tournament at my college. It was well attended... particularly by the young White kids. And most folks took their cards with them to find out if they actually lost because the had an answer and didn't know it. That's how Black History Month is suppose to work. It's not giving the answers, its giving a reason to find the answers.

Walt Bennett said...

As a white person living in an era when we are confronting past attitudes which may not be considered "racist" in the sense of one race believing it is superior to another, but are still issues which can divide and which have no easy answers (why are jails filled with young black men, for example?), I believe that we are not yet past the need to not only celebrate Black History Month, but to use it as an opportunity to continue the all important task of creating bridges which connect culturally and socially disparate people.

You may get a feeling that your blackness is only important to white people for that brief period of time when you are presenting a portion of black history, but what you cannot know is how those presentations play on the minds of those white people after you leave. Some of them may have already been aware of the need to build bridges but did not know how to get a conversation started; these presentations may help. Others might have learned a few things, maybe learned them wrong, and come away from these presentations with a greater awareness of all that they did not know. It may spur them to learn more.

I can't and won't speak to what it means for a black person to experience "yet another" BHM, but I agree that there are always more things to learn, and I also believe that black history continues to be made, and thus the presentation can always be updated.

I'm curious to know why Zack believes that black people are more divided now than at other times. Is it because there is less overt oppression these days? Or is it possible that it's a perception issue, and that blacks, like other cultural groups, have never been subject to a single description? Or is it just that, as opportunities continue to expand, people go in whatever direction their heart leads them?

Thanks for an enlightening post, Dwayne, and to those who commented before me.

Dwane T. said...

"You may get a feeling that your blackness is only important to white people for that brief period of time when you are presenting a portion of black history..."

Thanks for stopping by Walt. Actually, that whole paragraph is why I love speaking to audiences where white people are present. This morning I hosted a forum on Black Males: Life and the Law at my school. When the discussion went to apartheid, in a comment about the 13th ammendment not ending slavery, just race based slavery... and how the mandatory minimums sentences are legal slavery under the 13th amendment. I didn't say if for the young Black males, I said it for the older White Adults on my campus. I know it will encourage discussion on my campus and among their friends. Which is what BHM is all about.

I can't speak for Zack, but their are a lot of "divisions", such as the people who think the Bill Cosby's criticisms are correct, or that he is an elitist blaming the victims. I personally feel that there is still more than unites us than that divides us. More people knowing the true history of our existence in this country will eliminate many of those divisions.

Walt Bennett said...


I was riveted by Cosby's comments, and I knew they'd cause a stir, but I must say that it moved me to hear him say what he said. There has been an ever-increasing glorification of stupidity in our society, and what Cosby was saying was that a young black man has enough disadvantages already without adding to it being a "knucklehead." That may be harsh but it's true: you don't overcome a stereotype by playing into it. You try that, and one of two things happens, maybe both: (1) you become famous or (2) you lose.

I read today that DMX is charged with aggravated assault for throwing a food tray at a guard at the Arizona jail where he's been serving a 90 day hitch for using a false name to get out of paying a bill. He was on bread and water rations for some infraction and he wanted real food. He was told to put it back and threw the tray.

Some years ago I saw him in the excellent hip hop documentary "Backstage", and I was highly impressed with his intelligence, his focus and his distinctiveness. It bothers me to think that the career arc for a popular black artist must include a hitch in jail. Chris Brown comes to mind. His problems go even deeper.

I think where all of this gets fuzzy is where we examine the lives that young black people live. You and I have had some deep discussions, enough for me to know that a young black man is lucky to have a soul that is only slightly wounded; lucky not to enter adulthood a ball of hatred, or already a convict. I do understand.

But I have to say (as you know I do), we have to be able to talk about it. There is no other path to resolution, to progress, to enlightenment.

I love that you are so willing to talk about it.

jjbrock said...

Dwane you have an award at my blog.

Mark Hancock said...

I love reading the posts and comments on this topic.

Thank you all for your contribution.

Anonymous said...

"Come be black for me" is an interesting Thought. I grew up in Black America. Without actually having black skin. I'm not white either. It wasn't ... pleasant.

MLK was assinated and Black America rioted. And I learned to fight, had to fight every day of my life for years. I didn't do it. Nobody in my community did it.
Hell! I didn't even know who he was. I didn't know we all weren't just poor boys. I wasn't taught to think in terms of color. YOU! Taught me. (Black America)

You all want me to honor a community that terrorized a nation? Terrorized Me! And pretend it didn't happen. But it did, I'm a witness to it.

And the end result of the legacy of a great man was that Black America learned to terrorize a nation.

Charles Barkley (whom I've never met, but I love to read) wrote a book, "Who's afraid of a Large Black Man", with out explaining why.

Where is Black America's apology to a nation. To the communities they destroyed. To the people they hurt. Where is the rest of the story. What are you going to say to your son when he asks, "Where were you during the riots"; "Did you hurt people just because they weren't black?"

Bet this don't get posted.

Dwane T. said...

Hey Anonymous,

Thanks for stopping by. I hope you come back to read this. Why you would think I wouldn't post it, I don't know. 1) You are entitled to your perspective, and 2) I know that everyone has a story of pain, and hopefully of triumph.

I can tell you about life growing up as the bookwork brother of a gang leader, and having to have the police escort me home from school for my protection because his gang was at it again. I could tell you about being shot at by white kids doing drive-bys for fun on numerous occasions. I can tell you about being chased by a Chinese gang in Chinatown NY. I can tell you about my girlfriend having to walk me to the subway so the Latinos in Hunts Point, Bronx wouldn't get me. All of it is true, and is only a fraction of my story. Yet, none of those events taught me to hate any of those groups of people. It made me wary and angry in my youth, but as I got older and allowed myself to learn more about why those people would target me, it made me more understanding of all, and helped me to develop a love for all.

I wrote about my "adventures" in Black History month because it was Black History Month (LAST YEAR) when I wrote it. I am also pretty well versed in Hispanic/Latino History, Chinese History, Northern European History, Irish History, and Women's History in America. I met a women from Eritrea a few weeks ago, and immediately began researching her country. Why? Because to know a person's background breeds respect, and respect promotes love.

For the record, pro-black doesn't mean anti-white, or else I would hate my father-in-law, and as a result I would hate 1/2 of my wife and 1/4 of my daughter. Pro-black doesn't pretend that Black people never hurt anyone. That's ridiculous. Everyone has hurt everyone else. But that is keeping the argument on an individual level. The issues the Black people complain about aren't the White kids who beat up the Black kid. Its the court system that finds them not guilty, or gives them community service. Neither are we (sensible Black people) proud of the Black kids who beat up the White kid. We are ashamed, but we want them treated the same way as the White kids would be treated under the same circumstances. When we riot, or protest, or loot and burn, it's out of frustration at continually getting less than equal protection under the law.

If my son asks me if I hurt anyone during the riot, I'll say no; partly because I was only 6-8 years old during that time period, and partly because he knows I don't like violence. Would I hurt people because they weren't Black. My two White God-daughters would tell you no. My Muslim God-son would say the same. My children's God-fathers, two of whom are Hispanic and one who is white would disagree as well... as would the dozens of children of all races who consider me their primary father figure.

The mistake you made with you post was trying to make me accountable for your hurt. That is the same thing that the Black community that you hate so much did to you. In the same way, I never did anything to you either. Yes, an almost 100% Black neighborhood terrorized you, but assuming that the 10% of the population that is Black ever had the ability to terrorize this nation is a totally wrong. If it were possible, the US couldn't have been a superpower. What happened to you on a personal level did happen, but what you have chosen to believe happened on a national level never did.

Dwane T. said...

Let me add one last thing. You are still hurt from what happened in your youth, I understand that. You asked me a question about what I would tell my son, now I'll ask you one. If your son asked you about Martin Luther King, what could you tell him. If you don't know any more than you knew when he was killed, then you are part of the problem and not the solution. You're part of our problem, and you're part of your own problem. Dr. King died in vain if you don't know anymore about why he died and why we rioted now than you did then. You asking Black America to apologize to the nation is like the jurists saying Rodney King was "controlling the action" because he wasn't completely immobile while being hit with metal batons. People in pain are going to express their pain, just like Blacks did after King was killed, and like you did after you read my blog. I would never ask you for an apology, because I know enough about non-Blacks who were mistreated growing up in Black neighborhoods to understand your hurt. Actually, I would like to thank you. Because of you, I wrote this response... and I know someone is the future will be blessed by it.

Take care, much love.