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.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Behind The Glass

I have had time to reflect now on what the nomination, election, and inauguration of Barack Obama means to the past, present, and future of da brovas. Riding the “hope train” has taken my mind more places than it has my body or my wallet… but then again, if your mind can’t conceive it, there is no reason for the other two to attempt to make the trip. Time hasn’t allowed for a summary as much as it has for a symbol that stands out in my mind. Where Obama is, where the brothers are, was brought to my attention by a conversation I had with my middle boy the day after Presidential acceptance speech. I was talking to Alexander, aka - Xantastic, about the election; did his friends watch the speech, and what were the kids in school saying about having a Black man as president. He did his usual commentary… a few disjointed facts broken up by a bunch of jokes. Then he got quiet, somewhat somber and reflective, and asked: “Dad, will he always be behind the glass?” Being an empathetic 13 year old, Alexander was disturbed by the same sight I saw. Usually the camera was either too close or too far away to pick it up. But for a moment as the camera panned away, you could see it… the glass. It was high and wide. It wrapped around the stage, and Obama.

It was ironic that on a night when hundreds of thousands of people had traveled from across the country and around the world to see a man they had grown to love, a man who was willing to risk his life to serve them, they could not touch him… nor he them. The reason: although there are millions that love him, there is a handful that would be willing to kill him if they get the chance. They had made their intentions known early and often. According to the FBI, by the time he was sworn in, Obama had broken the record for presidential death threats… more than any two term president. And thus, he was where he would be for the next four years... behind the glass. The glass represents the life that Obama has taken on for himself. In order to serve the people who love him, and even the people who hate him, he must live behind the glass. As time goes by, he will be seen as out of touch… and in some respects, it will be true. It will be said he won’t know what the common man… particularly da brovas… are dealing with. It will be said that he has left his people behind to deal with issues of Afghani soldiers, North Korean missiles, African AIDS, and South American oil… even though those issues are part of his job. And on the rare occasion he comes out from behind the glass, it will be seen as window dressing… a photo op. Even being “as Black as he can be” in a White world… he will be accused of becoming whitewashed.

And so goes the life of every brother who lives behind the glass. Make no mistake, if a brother goes far enough in this world, he will have to choose whether or not to live behind the glass. Sometimes you don’t have a choice, as it was with Obama… it comes with the job/purpose/mission. The glass separates you from the people you love. Sometimes from the community you had to leave, because you could not walk into your destiny if you continued to stand in your past. Sometimes from your own family, because what you’re doing is too dangerous/safe/traditional/innovative/long-term/short-sighted for them to understand. Sometimes from your boys, or your girl, because you’ve changed (rather than you’ve grown), and they want things to be the way they were. Then the glass is also there for your protection, because you don’t know who to trust in the place you're traveling, so you keep a wall… a glass wall… so you can interact on a personal level, but they can’t get close enough to hurt you. The truth is Obama was behind the glass long before he got where he is… it’s just visible now. Sometimes a brother will choose not to live behind the glass. He does not want to be separated from the people he loves. Also, by not putting himself in compromising situations, he won’t have to compromise… and staying true to himself is a key to his survival. The reality is, the duality of the complete exposure and complete confinement inherent in life behind the glass would kill many brothers. Thus, those brothers do excellent work on a small level, but never make the major impact on the world that they could if they moved into the realm where the glass comes with the territory.
Before I started writing, I bounced this concept off of two minds I respect greatly, and was given insights that I wouldn’t have gotten on my own. My friend the Harvard educated government official for the federal government said, “Don’t forget about the brothers behind the glass ceiling!” She has definitely seen them in her travels. Brothers who could not move past the invisible barrier between them and the positions they are qualified for, but cannot access. Obama’s presidency is making folks consider removing the ceiling in some places, and at least raising it in others. But the ceiling, as a concept and as a practice, will be there long after Obama’s presidency. The other person gave the opposite side of the glass. She asked, “what about those guys behind the prison glass?” Wow... that made sure I don’t forget that there but for the grace of God... It is a profound experience talking to a brother from behind the prison glass. The look in their eyes… no matter how “hard”, “conscious”, or “spiritual” they may be, there is always an element of regret. Not guilt, because not all of them feel guilty, or are guilty, but the regret part is consistent. If only they had just done differently, or if someone had done differently for them. Good men + bad circumstances + bad choices + bad/no guidance + no vision = prison + regret. Obama was one college drug bust or drunk and disorderly arrest away from a life where “community activist” would have been his ceiling and not his jump-off point.

When you live behind it, the glass can become like the hall of two-way mirrors at the county fair (I’m in the south now… so that reference applies). You see yourself differently depending on which direction you look, and you know that’s how people in that direction see you. Then when the light gets brighter on the outside than on the inside, you see the people and only a faint image of yourself. “Dad, will he always live behind the glass?” I had been thinking about it for almost 24 hours when he asked me, and I still didn’t have an answer. Caught between my knowledge of what is, and my faith in what I hope for, I gave a long answer that amounted to: Yes, but he will step out from behind the glass more as time goes by… all great leaders do. Obama proved both right during the Inaugural Parade, when he stopped the car and jumped out. Shades on, one black glove on and the other in his hand, and his woman coming to his side, my man, Mufasa “44” McCool had stepped out from behind the glass a lot sooner than I or anyone else expected. Later, I was asked, “do you think he will get out again?” I said, “Absolutely!”…and of course he did. By that point I could understand why he is where he is.
While life behind the glass does confine him, it doesn’t define him. With that in mind, I think I’m going to have another talk with Alexander.