What I Learned During Black History Month

The people who like arguing whether or not Black History Month should be a thing can continue having that debate every February until our descendants all belong to one composite race, but I’m not wasting my time with it. And while I understand where Morgan Freeman was coming from when he told Mike Wallace that “Black History is American History” back in 2006, I’d rather not get stuck in semantics here. Observing Black History Month is good for me. I’d say it’s good for us, but I’m trying to limit the use of plural pronouns in my writing.

After college, once I sobered up enough to feel a sense of lost opportunity at having glossed over the literature put in front of me for four years, I started putting in an honest effort to flesh out my world view. Now I read widely, and I write highfalutin essays on the HuffPost blog without anyone ever asking to see my journalism degree. Being that this is an age of choice overload and I don’t have professors to assign me textbooks anymore, I like to let the calendar decide my reading material from time to time. In this case, it’s Black History Month and I happen to be in a seasonal phase of forcing myself to do open mics, so I picked up Darryl Littleton’s Black Comedians on Black Comedy: How African-Americans Taught Us to Laugh.

 

The first few chapters were tough, covering minstrelsy and the legacy of D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, a cinematic glorification of the Ku Klux Klan that was screened at the White House in 1915. Being a white American and reading through ugly patches of history can be daunting if you’re not in the mood to feel like a beneficiary of evil, but then again so can listening to “white saviors” like Sally Boynton Brown, a DNC chair candidate, talk about shutting “other white people” down while running against four minority candidates. In the current climate, where Trump just hosted a “little breakfast” and Pence hashtagged #BlackHistoryMonth in a tweet celebrating the first Republican president, some white knights compensate by amping up their “shut up and listen” rhetoric. I’ll get behind the listening part, but I operate under the assumption that nobody has any interest in shutting up.

 

On Super Bowl Sunday, I saw Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro in a theater full of white people, wondering how many in the audience would force the fact that they’d seen the Oscar-nominated civil rights documentary into conversations later that night. And here I am forcing it into this essay. While Trump used his Black History Month speech to talk about himself and bash CNN, I’m writing a personal essay on the subject at a time when more black voices should be heard with the intent to learn. To be fair to myself, though, this isn’t broadcast media. It’s a blog. I’m not a firebrand taking up space on the airwaves; I’m a self-indulgent “content creator” gloating over my commitment to truth, however ugly it is. And if I really wanted to justify being long-winded here, I could always just compromise what little integrity I have by citing the prevailing idea that “white silence is violence” and therefore I mustn’t shut up, but rather spoonfeed my readers divine wokeness any time I feel any hint of unease regarding my place in a history I see repeating itself.

 

When Dave Chappelle was about to do a show for FOX based on his life, executives told him that his best friend on the show had to be white. Mystro Clark recalls Chappelle responding with something along the lines of, “White people are narcissistic. They like to look at themselves all day.” I can’t speak for the others, but there’s no point in denying that I like looking at myself. That said, even though I’ve been likened to a poor man’s Chuck Bass, I’m less invested in Ed Westwick’s character in Gossip Girl than I am in Issa Rae’s character in Insecure. I wouldn’t know this if my girlfriend didn’t curate our programming once in awhile. And if I wasn’t currently using Black History Month as a kind of prompt, I wouldn’t be digging up clips from Def Comedy Jam, ComicView and One Night Stand on YouTube, finding formidable voices shaped in part by the Black experience in America – something my ego has to concede I’m not equipped to grasp.

 

When asked, “How are we going to get rid of racism?” in that 60 Minutes segment over a decade ago, Morgan Freeman said “Stop talking about it.” If that’s the winning strategy, good luck. Race is hot right now, for obvious reasons, and even though cliché truisms like “we have work to do” are as fruitless as recycled dick jokes at the open mics, people can’t help themselves. Facebook statuses by self-anointed “allies” abound, collecting dutiful likes before getting lost in the din of standardized language espoused by everyday progressives. I understand wanting to change hearts, but I can’t bring myself to believe that status updates lauding Moonlight do that. The racist homophobes will have to watch the movie for themselves, and if they miss it, hopefully they’ll stumble on another tour de force down the line that is outside of their comfort zones. Roxane Gay wrote: “Audiences are ready for more black film – more narrative complexity, more black experiences being represented in contemporary film, more artistic experimentation, more black screenwriters and directors allowed to use their creative talents beyond the struggle narrative.” Some audiences are, some aren’t. Either way, it’s probably time to open the floodgates in a tasteful way.

 

I suspect a lot of the people canceling their Netflix subscriptions over the innocuous trailer for the upcoming “Dear White People” series are some of the same people who rail against the “sensitive snowflakes” championing PC culture. Thin skin and hypocrisy are huge right now. I will admit to thinking MTV’s instructional video Dear White Guys was a lazy pot stirrer piggybacking on the “school the bros” trend, but it didn’t offend me, and if it had, I’d be too embarrassed to admit it. In fact, I went as far as to obey the thing, giving up the catchphrase “I’m woke” in favor of “I have a hard time believing Paul Mooney wouldn’t like me.”

The internet’s constant codification of social decorum is nothing personal. Or if it is, so what? The important thing is to make an effort to learn, even if it means having to look past Liberal Media’s tendency to play dad. Historian Peniel Joseph wrote a CNN editorial explaining why we need Black History Month now more than ever. It made a lot of sense to me, but then again, what do I know? Just a little more than I did in January.

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Source: HuffPost Black Voices

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