As a little Brown girl with a big Arabic name growing up in a place called Lynchburg, Virginia, I always looked forward to Black History Month. I reveled in the opportunity to see performances hosted by the local Black Theatre ensemble. I developed a profound appreciation for the genius of George C. Wolfe, Lorraine Hansbury, and August Wilson. I learned about the complexities of African-Americans’ lived experiences in and the persistent struggle to survive in spaces that brand Black folks both invisible and hypervisible at once. Living in a small town with five colleges allowed us to skip from campus to campus to see performances by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, take in a lecture by Dr. John Henrik Clarke, or listen to a poetry reading by Dr. Maya Angelou.
Two decades later and the words to Angelou’s 1993 inauguration poem — “On the Pulse of Morning” — still resonate, “lift up your faces, you have a piercing need. For this bright morning dawning for you. History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, and if faced With courage, need not be lived again.” Facing that history with courage shaped a series of public reckonings about the tragic life of Ota Benga who was kidnapped from Congo and put on display in zoos around the United States. The utter denial of Benga’s humanity and the deliberate exploitation of his physical being prompted many to question whether that type of violence could ever happen again. The past is prologue.
Although February was the shortest month of the year, we were determined to fill those 28 days with every image, song, story and artifact that reinforced our worth. We thought it an act of resistance to go beyond the standard historical figures of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks to celebrate the fullness of Black life in America. Our parents taught us to appreciate King and Malcolm X; Parks and Claudette Colvin; rather than buying into the artificial narrative of having to choose one or the other. It meant something to us as kids forced to desegregate our local elementary schools that we could define our own path rather than having our history told to us. In her seminal work Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity, and Violence Against Women, Kimberle Crenshaw (1991) cautions that “the problem with identity politics is not that it fails to transcend difference, as some critics charge, but rather the opposite – that it frequently conflates or ignores intra group differences.”
My neighborhood friends and I learned that lesson every morning as we passed three elementary schools en route to the suburban school we were chosen to integrate. We didn’t fully understand why we had to take the long bus ride to Paul Munro Elementary School instead of the short walk to Garland Rhodes. We dreaded the mandatory neighborhood walking tours with our teachers and classmates because it reminded us that we were perpetual interlopers. Our classmates would pass through familiar streets pointing out their expansive homes and eagerly waving to neighbors heading to lunch at the country club where people who looked like us were not allowed to join. Four years of field trips and the streets never felt familiar or welcoming to us. No matter how hard we worked in school or how much we tried to prove we deserved to be there, our classmates always saw us as “the kids bused from Rivermont.” Those barriers, both real and imagined, made it clear that the meaning of our presence in multiple spaces was structured by interlocking systems related to education, region, class, gender and race.
When I was eight years old my beloved home state conceded to federal demands to honor the legacy of the late Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by recognizing “Lee-Jackson-King Day.” The state holiday celebrated the contributions of Confederate leaders Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson alongside the renowned civil rights leader. Although some legislators argued that the joint holiday was fiscally prudent, to Black residents of the state it was a perpetual reminder that contemporary visions of freedom are constrained by past contestations over race and representation. Today, the tripartite holiday has been separated into two. However, the continued debate over monuments, street names and public spaces honoring the Confederacy compound the gravity of starting this year’s Black History Month with a painful reminder that on issues of race, the past is always prologue.
Over the last two weeks I’ve listened to friends, pundits and scholars debate the implications of discovering yearbook photos of Virginia’s Governor and Attorney General proudly wearing Blackface. These revelations are more complicated than dismissing them as youthful indiscretions that were simply apropos of the time. Blackface, whether donned by jazz singer Al Jolson in the past or college students at a Halloween party, is deeply rooted in the longstanding American tradition of reinforcing the boundaries of belonging. Blackface isn’t simply a costume. It represents an intentional presentation of Black people not as citizens, but as caricatures. In that regard, Blackface is a form of violence that weakens the capacity of communities to both define and present themselves as full members of the polity. Addressing that damage is particularly important for public officials with the authority to determine the life chances of the most vulnerable members of our communities.
That we are engaging in a debate over Blackface and accountability in 2019 is telling. That there are still people who relish in the vacuous declaration that they “don’t see race,” is damning. Earlier this week former Starbucks CEO and potential Presidential contender Howard Schultz reflected on the controversial removal of two young Black men from the Philadelphia coffee shop by suggesting, “I didn’t see color as a young boy and I honestly don’t see color now. … We need to do everything we can to restore the humanity of the country.” Restoring humanity won’t come from those who don’t see race, because the reality is that we all see race. Just as we see height, weight, eye color and hair texture, race is an immutable characteristic of every human being. Not just African-Americans, but all Americans. The fallacy of building a post-racial society doesn’t mean an environment where the preferred default identity is whiteness or one that doesn’t “see” race.” The challenge comes in addressing the values, stereotypes and judgments that we attach when we see race. Those judgments occur when police officers decide to arrest a Northwestern University student for allegedly “stealing” his own car. Those judgments seep into the ways teachers respond to classroom behaviors that label some students as energetic and others as troublemakers. And those judgments shape how college campuses define and respond to controversial speakers who challenge discomfort in the name of academic freedom. Seeing race is a recognition that access to democracy in the United States is built upon how we see ourselves, how we see others and the mechanisms available to reinforce those distinctions. Not “seeing” race and refusing to address the realities of race won’t make racism go away. Quite the contrary. Working to eliminate racism requires a dedicated commitment to listening to those most affected and a willingness to be challenged. Happy Black History Month.
Dr. Khalilah L. Brown-Dean is an associate professor of political science at Quinnipiac University where she writes about American politics, political psychology, and public policy. You can follow her on Twitter @KBDPHD.