From Then to Now
Black History Month isn’t what it used to be. But then again, neither are we.
By Kendra Hamilton
My cousin “Daphne”* is 13 going on 30, with all the accoutrements of the 21st century “fly girl” in training. She has the cell phone in the teddy bear case. The headphones that obviate any need to talk or relate to anyone but her peers. The designer nails. The hair extensions. The glitter-spangled nameplate accessories. The low-slung jeans and tight tops that show off a figure I’m torn between envying and wanting to throw a blanket around.
Of course, Daphne is still a child, even a brief conversation with her makes that unmistakably clear. It’s peppered with references to her favorite color (pink), her favorite singers (Beyoncé and Mary J. Blige) and movies she loves or wants to see.
Not so reassuring, though, are the references to her current obsessions — skin color and hair.
An acquaintance is too Black. So Black she’s blue, she says. When I tell her I don’t approve of such talk, she protests, “But my boyfriend is dark!”
Then we get to my hair. She knows it’s “real” — I’ve worn the same style since before she was born. What she really wants to know is if it’s “natural”— and she sighs when I cautiously say yes. “I woulda had good hair, too, if my mama hadn’t ruined it with that perm,” she says.
Good hair vs. bad hair? Light skin vs. dark skin? This is more than I can handle. “What the hell is going on?” I sputter to my parents sitting at the table with us.
Didn’t we have these conversations back in the ’60 and ’70s? Didn’t we settle all this stuff? Didn’t we decide ‘Black is beautiful’ and ‘Say it loud, I’m Black and I’m proud?’”
They glance at each other uneasily and then at me. “Kendra,” my father says, “It’s a different generation.”
Twenty-five years ago, in 1971, the Black Arts Movement was in full swing. Nikki Giovanni had published her autobiography at the ripe old age of 25. Ernest Gaines had given the world the unforgettable Miss Jane Pittman. And Addison Gayle’s “Black aesthetic” was in evidence everywhere. It was present in the poetry of Haki Madhubuti, Sonia Sanchez and Etheridge Knight. You felt it in the slick urban sensibility that pulsed through “Shaft” and “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.” You saw and touched it in the art of Faith Ringgold — who received her first big mural commission that year — and of Bettye Saar, Charles White and Jacob Lawrence, featured in the Whitney Museum’s first-ever exhibit of contemporary Black art.
In 1971, I was the same age that Daphne is today, so I was barely aware of the many social and cultural currents of the time.
But I do vaguely recall a buzz about Charlotte, N.C., among the teachers who comprised my parents’ social circle. 1971 was the year the U.S. Supreme Court forced the Mecklenburg County schools to accept busing. I do remember Joe Frazier beating my idol Muhammad Ali for the heavyweight championship, then making even Ali fans proud by becoming the first Black man since Reconstruction to address the state legislature in his, and my, home state of South Carolina.
Without a doubt, I remember the soundtrack from that year. Aretha’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” I remember James Brown howling about “Hot Pants” that I was too skinny to wear, and Michael Jackson’s “Never Can Say Good-bye.”
Now that I’m fully immersed in this trip down memory lane, I recallsomething more. 1971 was the year my all-Black Catholic school changed forever, with the sudden incursion of a horde of Irish-, Italian- and German-Catholic kids.
My school celebrated Negro History Week in February for years prior to that. There were earnest recitations from Langston Hughes and schoolwide projects on Mary McLeod Bethune and Charles Drew. Did those continue with integration?
The question haunts me because here, at the threshold of Black History Month, I’m trying hard to see this cultural moment through Daphne’s eyes. From that vantage, integration is looking more and more like a Rubicon that, once crossed, set our feet as African-descended Americans on a 40-year trek through some extremely tall weeds.
Make no mistake. My memories of the past are not suffused with nostalgia. I don’t make a habit of comparing the best parts of the Jim Crow era — the community and the cohesiveness — with the worst confusions of the post-integration era. But I can’t deny that we’ve plummeted from the heights of Black Arts to 50 Cent and his G-Unit. We’ve gone from “Shaft,” every frame by Gordon Parks or bar by Isaac Hayes a work of art, to “Soul Plane.”
Having grown up between Charleston (S.C.) and New Orleans, I know that things like blue-vein societies and paper bag tests really existed. I’ve experienced personally the horrific toll our so-called cohesive community paid for internalizing the racism of our erstwhile masters.
On the other hand, I also thought the thinkers and writers of the 1960s and 1970s had given us, as a people, the analytical tools to understand our condition and resist “the man’s” determination to mis-educate. Now I’m seeing just how prescient Gil Scott Heron really was. No, the revolution was not televised, and, in 2006, that means it might as well have not happened.
There’s no getting around the fact that the great social breakthrough of integration hasn’t worked out the way we, the African-Americans whose parents pried the doors open so that we could walk through, thought it would.
In part, suggests University of Michigan sociologist Dr. Reynolds Farley in his work on residential segregation, that’s because Blacks and Whites had widely contrasting notions of what would constitute an integrated community. For Whites, Farley has written, an integrated neighborhood is one where one house in every 15 has a Black family, about 6 percent of the total. African-Americans, meanwhile, define integration as a 50-50 ratio.
Similarly, recent work by Kenji Yoshino, deputy dean for intellectual life and law professor at Yale, suggests what a moving target discrimination has become. Instead of taking aim at entire groups, it’s now directed at members of those groups who refuse to assimilate to the mainstream.
Case law is rife with instances, argues Yoshino. There’s the African-American airline worker fired for wearing cornrows; the Latinos in the jury pool dismissed for lapsing into Spanish; the mother demoted for taking maternity leave; the lesbian attorney fired for telling her supervisor she and her partner were “getting married.”
In each case, the courts dismissed the claims because they were based not on immutable characteristics like race, ethnicity or gender, but on factors that plaintiffs could have changed had they so wished. The airline worker could have changed her hairstyle. The mother didn’t face bias while she was pregnant — an immutable and protected characteristic — only when she decided to take leave.
This new, insidious form of bias, call it “assimilation bias,” has wide social acceptability in our society. It accounts in varying degrees for the media “pass” granted both Bill Cosby — who wanted to spark a fearless dialogue on class in Black America — and actor Morgan Freeman — who told “60 Minutes” he finds Black History Month “ridiculous” and thinks racism would end if people would only “stop talking about it.”
Of course, neither of these critiques deals with the questions we learned were most important in the 1960s and 1970s. Those were questions about power. Who has it? What are the structures of thought and feeling and force they use to maintain it? How can we analyze it? And how can we mobilize to get some of our own?
The problem as I have come to see it is that, in Black America, as well as in other sectors of ethnic America, that final question has been answered in an individual sense. Each person moves to carve out his or her own individual destiny. Their success is based sometimes on the highest and best use of power, but far too often it is based on what serves his or her individual survival and ego needs.
The phenomenon has given us not just Claude Steele — the sociologist whose pioneering work on stereotype threat is at last filtering down into the K-12 schools — but also his brother, conservative darling and affirmative action foe Shelby Steele. Not just Charles Ogletree but Clarence Thomas. Not just Denzel Washington and Halle Berry but an endless parade of jolly, pot-bellied women selling laxatives and cleaning products and belligerent youths selling urban rebellion.
It’s like a crazy quilt, but not one of those beautiful 19th-century crazy quilts we savor for what they tell us of our ancestors’ aesthetics and their lives. This is a crazy quilt of individual destinies that seems to add up only to a great deal of cultural confusion — so much cultural confusion that it might seem safer and easier to some people to pick on something like Black History Month.
For example, I look at someone like Daphne — her innocent yearnings so ruthlessly exploited by so many huge cultural forces — and it seems clear to me that Black History Month has not served her well. I seriously doubt that it’s being used as it could be, to give her a sense of self that includes not just fly girls but soaring spirits from Sojourner Truth to Oprah.
There’s just no denying that there is a great deal wrong with Black History month as it is practiced today. It has indeed become crassly commercial and exploited by a lazy media to offer dumbed-down, sugarcoated myths from America’s complex and racially tortured past.
And if the rush to book Black intellectuals and activists — ignored at all other times of the year — isn’t a national embarrassment, it should be.
But as for Morgan Freeman’s solution to abandon Black History Month altogether? It’s not to be thought of, and here’s why.
Black History Month reminds us of habits that we break at our peril. It reminds us of the value of looking at ourselves as a collective, particularly when assimilation pressures are so intent that the focus stay resolutely individual. It reminds us that there really have been shining moments in time when we as a people had moral clarity and spread it to the rest of the nation. And most of all, it reminds us of the task that remains — digging down deep to ask the hard questions
about power. Who has it? How do we get it? How would we best use it?
And if I could just boil that down to a rap song, Daphne might hear something useful through those headphones.
*Daphne is a composite of several preteen girls from my family.
Kendra Hamilton is assistant editor of Diverse: Issues In Higher Education.
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