Black History Month
Today on BnB, we simultaneously wrap up Black History Month and Smart Guest Post Week. Our final contributor is a future muckety-muck somewhere in DC, I guarantee it. I call him "the Captain" but others may know him as SpkTruth2Pwr, the voice of The Apathy Remedy and a driving force behind The Younger Writers' Block. Show him some love.
As Black History Month (BHM) comes to an end, I would love to do a post-BHM wrap up.
You know- a post on how the story of our black ancestors is a story of hope in the midst of struggle and how black history month is an ode and a perpetual lesson for not only black people but also all people in America.
But instead, I can only approach the end of BHM with sadness.
I went to a Black History Month play this weekend. It was a community church production called "From the Slave House to the White House."
It wasn't a large crowd - mostly teens attending as part of a program. I was looking forward to it, The message behind it was progress and how our ancestors' perseverance made each generation keep pushing to make life better for future generations. I enjoyed myself.
But when I looked around, the picture I saw was disgusting and disappointment.
The teens, who were all black, were completely not engaged. The few that managed to view every now and then could not control or stifle their laughter.
- When the actresses performed an African Dance routine, some of the teens would mimic them between a few stifled giggles and hi-fives.
- When the actress on stage used the vernacular of an uneducated slave, the teens would crudely mimic the accent within their cliques.
- When an actress screamed in fear of being caught by "massah" because they were sneaking off to read the Bible, the teens ridiculed her.
- When the "slave child" lamented as she was torn from her mother's arms, the teens laughed and pointed.
I don't know. Maybe it's because my parents both can remember going to segregated schools. Maybe it's because I know that even though my grandparents were not slaves, they were bound by a system that left them dependent on the master who controlled them - sharecropping was just a euphemism for slavery.
But I was disgusted. To laugh at that history was to laugh at themselves. And the sad thing - they could not realize it or see past it because they were living to be "cool".
In the same way they laughed at the slaves' dance of jubilation, or the servant eager to read, society has done the same to these kids. And rather than being conscious of that fact - they have joined in and laughed as well at the notion that they themselves could actually be more than what they are labeled and expected to be.
It is an ignorance of self. I could dissect the root causes, and pontificate on the disconnect between the youth and their elders, technology, media, blah blah blah. It is important to treat the problem and not the symptoms, so making the connection to the actual problem is important.
But really I believe it all feeds in to a central theme - the Millennial Generation is ashamed of their history. I mean that past is not cool right? Slaves weren't rocking the latest in fashion were they? They were clearly some Bammas. Blacks of the past were largely a bunch of have nots, right? That's wack, weak, lame. Why keep focusing on all that trivial stuff and those largely vague themes - freedom, equality, struggle, justice, and opportunity? It's embarrassing to keep bringing up those days when we were largely uneducated, largely forgotten, and largely disrespected. We have moved on up with George and Weezy right?
Well sadly those days have gotten a bit brighter, but they have not passed to yesterday.
- Those same laughing teens represent a population with a higher nationwide proportion of dropouts from high school.
- Those same laughing teens represent a population that doesn't "have it all" - 24 percent of blacks live below the poverty line compared to 13 percent of the nation (U.S. Census Bureau)
- Those same laughing teens represent a population where 38 percent of black teens in America live with both parents. The next lowest was Hispanics, with 69 percent. (U.S. Census Bureau)
Those same laughing teens are being laughed at for willingly keeping themselves ignorant by neglecting their own history.
The message behind the play was good. But the teens in the audience were too busy thinking "that progress thing" was for another time, another wack/lame generation.
And it is that perpetuation of the disconnect with our history that will work against the progress so many of our ancestors fought to gain.
I was disappointed because these teens had no idea that as each chuckle escaped their lips, they were slowly drowning out the very hope and struggle that had allowed them to freely sit in that theatre. That with each joke at the expense of the "slave" in the play, they were trivializing the path to progress for blacks in America.
And if it is one thing that makes us look ignorant as a people, it is removing collective progress from our vision of success, and replaced it with our own interpretation.
We have the spirituals of the slaves, the courage of the freedom riders, the honor of the Tuskegee Airmen, the teachings of DuBois, the dream of Martin, the examples of countless black innovators and originators, and the inspiration of Barack. The only thing that is lacking is the youths to take these and continue marching onward and upward in the name of perpetual advancement.
But like a lion raised in captivity - no matter how great the potential to be a proud king, the lion will never see past its cage and hand-fed meals.
The cage of these black youths I saw was the cage of their own mind, and their own lacking sense of history. And because of that, they are willing to take what they are given, rather than demanding what they have the potential to achieve. And so they sit, never knowing they should hope for more - choosing to remain as nothing more than the next exhibit in the zoo that is society.
Only when our black young minds connect where they came from with their present and where they need to go will the faith of our ancestors continue inspiring the march toward advancement and expand our black history, which in turn will add another link in the chain of progress that has been American history.
What say you BougieLand? When did you start appreciating your Black History? What's will it take to drag these Millennials towards the reality check they so clearly have coming? Any final thoughts on Black History Month?
I hate discussing Black Hair. Hate, hate, hate it. But unfortunately, I opened the door with the whole LSLHBBNA* thing yesterday so now I must go in. Pardon me if I meander around the point. Stay with me.
I was travelling about 80% of the time then and the thought of carting around a flat iron, two curling irons and a carry-on full of hairdo-right-by-me products was more than I could stand. I decided to try a weave. I kept it in for quite a while and when I took it out not only had my hair grown out very long, it was a completely different texture. So I had a completely different head of hair in my 30's than I had in my 20's. Moral to the story? Me and my hair have been through a lot together but I never thought it defined me. And know that I work from home? Ha! BougieSis called me the "headband queen" on Monday.
Moving on… There seems to be a prevailing attitude that your hair says something about you. Well. Maybe it does and maybe it doesn't. Maybe the girl with the long braids just wanted an easy hairstyle for the beach. Maybe the girl with a blond fro just thought she'd try something different. Same thing with the fellas. Let's not assume that dread-locked guy doesn't work in Corporate America, let's not assume that cornrows is a banger or square-cut fade dude is preppy. Piggy-backing on yesterday – does Barack get to the White House if he's sporting braids? What if Michelle had dreads – can you imagine the drama?
And let's bury the idea of "good hair"… I beg of you. I've no issue with a hair style if it's neat, clean and flattering to the person wearing it. But others remain obsessed with the ideal of long, luxurious locks blowing the wind as the only standard of good hair. Baby hair, water weave, indian hair, it goes on and on. It's another one of those divisive things we have to squelch early. Chris Rock put together a documentary on black haircare that people seemed to really love or really hate. Here was the trailer:
And of course the classic "Good or Bad Hair" from Spike Lee's School Daze:
*LSLHBBNA: Light Skinned, Light Hair, Big Boobs, No-Ass
I distinctly remember being at a Jack & Jill function at age eight with BougieYoungerBro and having a boy that I thought was a friend ask me why my younger brother was darker than me. I stood there confused (since it never occurred to me that this was an issue) and said, "I don't know he just comes that way". The boy went on to ask if we had the same father. I angrily replied, "Of course!" And followed that up with a swift kick to his right ankle. He retaliated by pushing me backwards and BougieYoungerBro started crying and tried to bite him. Good times. By then, some parents had swooped in to break up the conversation. One of the mothers took me and my brother on the side and said, "Don't pay him any mind, his whole family is passe-blanc. They still paper bag test future mates." I went home and had to ask BougieMom to explain to me what had happened.
Let me pause to explain a few things because I know of at least four readers who have no idea what I'm talking about: Jack & Jill is an African-American organization formed in 1938 to allow black children aged 2 – 19 to have cultural opportunities, develop leadership skills, and form social networks. It has always had the reputation of being a bit exclusionary with only "upper" to "upper-middle" class kids included. (I don't know if this is really true or not). Mothers have to be invited in to join the organization. When I was active, pretty much all the kids' parents were doctors, lawyers or executives. Since we all went to schools where often we were the only black (or one of a few blacks) in the school grade, Jack & Jill and the church were the two places where I was surrounded by other black people and not standing out in a crowd.
Passe-blanc is a term used to describe extremely light-skinned people of color who could "pass for white."
The "paper bag test" refers to a practice that originated during slavery. Plantation owners would place a paper bag next to slaves' skin and those that were lighter than the bag were considered worthy to work in the house, those that were darker were sent to the field. This kind of blatant colorism still permeates our thinking today.
From The Hilltop Online (Howard Unviersity Student Newpaper):
According to an article written by Audrey Elisa Kerr, an associate English professor at Southern Connecticut State University, light-skinned slaves-particularly women-were considered "gentler, kinder, more handsome, smarter, and more delicate" than darker-skinned slaves.
Washington, D.C., once played a large role in the dark-skin/light-skin game. Because slavery did not have such an economic impact in the District, many free blacks preferred to reside in the area. In the mid-19th century, barbershops began accommodating only light-skinned black men.
Not only was race a factor, but skin tone became one. Churches, schools and various organizations utilized the paper bag test for social verification. There were also multitudes of brown bag parties, clubs, and social circles.
With colorism having such strong bearing in the nation's capital, Howard has been accused of utilizing the brown paper bag test.
Inclusion in various organizations sometimes depended on skin tone as well.
Dr. Jennifer Jordan, an African-American literature professor at Howard, doesn't believe much has changed in the overall scope of the paper bag theory.
"Look at the rappers and their music videos," Jordan said. "[Colorism] exists everywhere."
Speaking of rappers, Wale (a DC-based rapper) infuriated a large portion of the Twitterverse by previewing his video for Pretty Girls Monday. Problem? The majority of the pretty girls in his video were light-skinned. Now I don't know if being denied an opportunity to shake your ass is justice denied… really. Add to this the fact that he also has out another song called "Shades" in which he details the dynamic of being a dark-skinned man who had previous issues with light-skinned women and Chrisette Michele (a light skinned-woman) sung on that track with him. Based on all the evidence, I didn't see it as a big deal. Others disagreed. Here's the video, tell me what you think:
The thing that disturbs me is that we are STILL talking about it in 2010. I recall about 10 years ago being a restaurant with some girlfriends. As it happened, I was the lightest skinned girl at the table. The dark-skinned waiter would come to the table and speak directly to me, no one else. After the second time, they teased me saying, "Well at least we'll get good service since there's somebody acceptable at the table." They laughed but I wasn't amused. I said, "Come on, how do you know that's what it is? Maybe I remind him of someone." They all laughed and one said, "Yeah, his future baby mama. If you smile a little bigger, we might get these crabcakes for free, girl."
As the night went on and he got more and more obvious with his blatant exclusion of everyone at the table but me, I was increasingly upset. "I'm going to call him on it." They all said, "No!" I asked, "Why not?" One answered, "Girl, this is just how some folks are. Light bright and damn near white is always right in their eyes. We can get mad and rail about it but they aren't going to change their minds. And if you call him out on it, you go from being some ideal girl in his head to some stuck up chick trying to tell him about himself. We still have to order dessert." The episode unsettled me because to me, they were accepting his disrespect. Later they reminded me that you have to pick your battles. Telling off the waiter at a restaurant we'd never go to again wasn't one they felt was worth fighting.
In Wal-mart the other day, I heard some young girls talking about how happy they were about the way their babies turned out. Healthy? I thought. No. One girl said her girl was light skinned and the other said her boy was dark skinned and that's the way it should be. She did not want her boy to look like "no punk". Uh – has skin tone ever been an indicator of punky vs. thuggy behavior? Back in the day both Ice-T and Ice Cube scared me shitless, now I'd let either of them babysit BougieFam. The one girl said she was glad her baby girl was light skinned with "good hair" because life would be easier for her. For real tho? That baby girl's less than intelligent underage mama is buying glitter to put on her baby's onesie for Mardi Gras but she's gonna have an easy road due to skin and hair?
I could go on and on all day. The guy who told me not to get "too much sun" on vacation because he liked his ladies to "keep it light." The guy who told me if I "darken it up" he could take me out, he only dated "real" sistas. There are so many instances where the words 'color-struck' don't even begin to cover it. And I haven't enough time or energy to discuss the ascension of Barack Obama to the Presidency as it relates to skintone. I'll just ask this question – if Barack looked like Djimon Hounsou, was he electable?
Okay maybe a few more questions, do you think as a race we will EVER get beyond skintone? Has your life been impacted (negatively or positively) because of your shade of skin?
Tomorrow on BnB explores blackness…. Hair. Le Sigh.
Flipping around late last night while sipping a Pepto cocktail with Ginger Ale chaser (too much SuperBowl celebration), I stumbled across Ovation TV. Ovation is what A&E started out like before they went all reality on us. (12 straight hours of Dog the Bounty Hunter is a little much).
Anyway, on Ovation last night: They showed a two-hour documentary on Chess Blues Legend Howlin' Wolf (brilliant) followed by an hour of Marvin Gaye concert footage from different events. Just out of curiosity, I consulted my guide to see what else they had on deck for Black History Month. This evening there's a show called Impact, discussing the impact of certain songs on American culture. Tonight it's Chuck Berry's Maybellene. Tomorrow night, Run-DMC's Walk this Way. Also tomorrow night a documentary on Nat King Cole followed by an expose on the Rise and Fall of Death Row Records… SOLD!
Not sure which cable systems it's on, check the website to find it in your area.
Who has Black History programming to share with the group?
*In case you haven't noticed, for Black History Month - I'm talking about blackness. Let's continue.
You know, reading over yesterday's comments about blackness I realized that I left off a whole other subset of the "black enough" equation. I would be remiss in not calling out my OWN folks who openly display their lack of racial sensitivity. Let me shout out a few gems:
- My editor, a sister-girl, telling me that the hero in my second novel shouldn't be a doctor because "my target audience" couldn't (or wouldn't) relate to him. "It would be better," she said, "if he was a delivery man or something obtainable like that." O__o. Just to be evil, the hero of the second book is a delivery driver for the first eight pages. When we see him again, he has a Ph.D. [snuck that Doctor in anyway]
- Bruh who rolled up at the airport, "Are you Puerto Rican?"
Him: "So what are you?"
Him: "No really, are you mixed?"
Me: Black and black, does it matter?
Him: You just have a look about you that's not really black. I mean that as a compliment. [funny, doesn't feel like one]
- Work colleague (a sister) who pulled me to the side to say she admired my earrings. "Are they real?" I gave her a look and responded, "As far as I know." She came back with, "Oh, I never knew another black person who owned real diamonds before." [Le Sigh]
- Blogger who said he prefers "real black women" not uppity, siddity ones. [I didn't realize sidditiness impacted my black status.]
- African-American owned company who interviewed me via phone six times and then when I came in to meet face to face looked stunned that I was black. In fact, the CEO actually fixed her lips to say, "I would have never known you were black from your phone voice." [Is that the black version of 'you speak so well'?]
- When I transferred from private school to public school for grades 10 – 12, the many, many brothers and sisters who told me that I "talked white" "acted white" and "dressed like a preppy white girl." [I now realize my response should have been - And so?]
It's bad enough when you get it from folks outside the race; you can always
pretend assume they don't know any better. But when your "peeps" come at you with it… no bueno. I'm not sure how we expect everyone else to be post-racial when we can't seem to get the hang of it ourselves.
Well, I had created a seriously stupid quiz to go along with today's post but Blogger won't let me be great. If you want to take it, click here. Have a great weekend!
Comments, thoughts? I know ya'll have had similar experiences... do share!
Allow me to share a BougieTale from Wednesday afternoon:
Michele Grant sits on a conference call with her agent (a self-described Jewish New Yorker) and two representatives from a west coast film production company. They are interested in optioning my book for a film. The problem is we want to keep the integrity of the story; otherwise we could just sell the option, take the money and run. But very rarely are first-time unknown authors giving the opportunity to stay involved. Now I still may take the money and sprint but first we thought we'd try to see if we could keep a little artistic control. We have met with two other companies. This is our third of five meetings and we are hearing the exact same thing. So much so that my agent and I are on Yahoo Messenger keeping each other sane. Here is the latest:
Them: "Your storyline is compelling but your heroine is ethnically ambiguous."
My Agent: "I beg your pardon?"
Them: "We mean… we know she's black… African-American… but she doesn't really act like it."
Me (thinking Oh Really Now?): "I see."
Them: "And your hero, can he be a little more blue collar?"
Me (thinking for the last time – He's an ARCHITECT): "umm, er-"
Them: "And then we'd like you add in some scenes that are more colorful."
Them: "Less mainstream. Something more suit to a wider Black audience."
Me: "I'm sure I don't know what you mean." [I knew exactly what they meant but I just wanted them to say it.]
Them: "Well you have a barbecue scene and a night club scene and a church scene – those are great but maybe you could expand those and have more quintessential ethnic moments?"
My agent (affronted): "Quintessential ethnic moments?"
Them: "We're just going to speak plainly and we don't want you to take offense. Okay?"
Me (already offended but resigned): "Sure, go ahead."
Them: "It's almost mainstream enough to crossover but your best idea is to appeal to a black base. And right now, it's just not black enough."
Me (slowly through gritted teeth): "Not. Black. Enough. I see."
Agent: "Thank you guys, I don't think it's a fit."
Them: "Well but-"
My agent started apologizing to me, I cut her off. I told her it was the story of my life. Just black enough to be considered black, but quite black enough… whatever the hell that means.
Later, as I recounted the story to a friend of mine, she got angry. She told a story about going out on a sales call with her manager. She was flattered and surprised to be asked since she was the junior sales executive and new to the company. As they drove towards the sales visit, she realized that they were heading to a black part of town. She began to wonder if this was why she was chosen to attend. Her suspicions were affirmed when he turned to her as they pulled up and said, "Hey, I'm going to let you take the lead on this one. But do you think you could "black it up" a little in there? You come across kinda white bread sometimes. You know, drop your g's some, get loose." [say it with me now... LASER-BEAM SIDE-EYE]
She said two things stopped her from going off – she was in the middle of a neighborhood she knew nothing about and she needed the job. But after winning the account, she waited a few days and then sent an email detailing the incident word for word and cc'd his supervisors and Human Resources. She dropped in words like "tokenism" and "emotional distress." Shortly thereafter her supervisor was transferred but she got the stigma of being "a troublemaker" (read Uppity Negro) and it stayed with her until she left the company three months later.
Le Sigh people. It's 2010. Do we really need to tell people that euphemisms like "colorful" and "ethnic" are not a very well-disguised? Do we really still need to give someone the side-eye for using a term like "black it up"? Diggity-damn, do I really need to prove my "blackness" to sell a script? Just what the feazy is "quintessential ethnicity" anyway? Let me dig around in the stereotype files.
Ah here we go: Should my characters enter each scene carrying some form of cooked chicken parts? Should they discuss weaves vs. natural hair at the drop of a hat? Should I go into more details about rims and chains? Should I have one character who adds, "Know what I'm sayin'?" to the end of every sentence? Should I place a scene in a check-cashing store, barbershop, or nail salon? Should someone be an aspiring rapper/professional athlete at the age of 35? Should I make sure someone has a black velvet picture of Malcolm X, MLK, Biggie and Tupac with angels' wings hanging up in the living room? Should a fight break out over blue Koolaid? Is that blackity-black enough?
Okay, I've vented. Moving on. But I'll say this one thing: Obama is in the White House but we are still generations away from true post-racism.
Hmm, that was a kind of white bread closing to this post, let me "black it up" a little: We still 50-cent short of a dolla dolla bill, ya'll. Ain't that right, BougieLand? Ya'll keep it real and greasy fo' sheezy, ya dig! Holla at cha girl! I'm out. Deuces, truces and nan-mo excuses! Peace! [drops mic and exits, stage left]
But that did get me to thinking - just how black am I? I came up with a completely offensive quiz full of our worst stereotypes. Please take it in the super-snarky spirit in which I created it:
Thoughts? Comments? Similar experiences?
Black History Month has always been a source of panic for me. For some reason, I'm always worried that I'm not doing enough or that I'll miss something great on TV or in theatre. I always get a little irritated that it's the shortest month of the year when there is SO much to cover. This year, I decided to do a little bit more. It was an eye-opening experience. As a favor to a church friend of mine, I agreed to host an online chat session about Black History Month for about 25 of the church youths (ages 14 – 18). After an hour and a half of shock and dismay, let me just say… I weep for the future. And yet, I feel certain that every single generation has felt this way about "the kids" coming up behind them. But this time… they may be right. Witness if you will, some of the gems mined from this session.
I opened with a soft question: What does Black History Month mean to you? Now I had some okay answers but to a person, they all mentioned Martin Luther King. A little narrow in scope, so I decided to ask a follow up question – do you think Black History in America begins with MLK? Most enlightening answer: The history that impacts us began with MLK. This let me know that beyond Malcolm and Martin, these kids were not that informed. So I delved a little deeper: Who can tell me (without Googling) who was Marcus Garvey? Dead silence. Sojourner Truth? "A rapper, right?" Le Huge Sigh. I cried a little inside and then embedded these links about each person:
Immediately, they had questions about what I had sent and wondered why they didn't know more about people like this. The majority of their questions revolved around the fact that they no longer felt that slavery had a huge impact on their lives. In fact, they felt that with the election of Obama, the biggest battle had been won and they were going to sit back and enjoy what one of them called "the new black privilege". <- - Definitely a topic for another post.
So I asked: Who can name a war or battle that contributed to the freedoms you enjoy today? Among many scary answers came: The East Coast/West Coast Rap Battle of the 90s. Instead of scoffing at the child I asked if he knew where the origin of rap was rooted. This boy said Bed-Stuy. I said no. Someone else said church. I said okay and where did those church songs and "call-and-response" cadences come from? Finally someone said slavery and spirituals. They all became highly amused at the thought of slaves in the cotton field rapping. "What kind of tags were they poppin' in the fields? Any bling in the 1800s?" Moving on, I explained that rap was a form of communicating social conditions as were the old field spirituals. That at least registered some interest and they had a lot of questions about the influence of music on Black culture from then to now. I sent them this overview.
Finally, thinking I had achieved a breakthrough, I asked the following questions: What was the Harlem Renaissance, who started the Underground Railroad, who was Mildred Loving, why did Malcolm claim the last name X? A few come up with Harriet Tubman but that was about it. At this time, I was exhausted and told them to look the rest up. I ended by giving a little quiz (which I've embedded below for your good times).
Granted, I wasn't exactly hip deep in knowledge of African-American History myself at 15. But Eyes on the Prize and documentaries like it were required watching in my home. BougieDad spent more hours than I care to think about pontificating on all things blackilicious from the Congo to Calypso music to Stokely Carmichael.
All of this to say, grab up the young 'uns around you and put something other than rap lyrics in their heads. I beg of you. Black History Month should be a celebration of all the rich heritage and culture in each aspect of African-American life. Let's do our part to make sure it's more than just a month of great movies and tribute videos. Reach one, teach one. Join me in passing along knowledge, won't you?
Any stories about Black History Month to share? Comments? Thoughts?