Then I realized that the other day, the 21st, was the day that Malcolm X was killed. That seems a good a point as any to start. I've been working on this ever since.
I have always had a kinship for brother Malcolm. He was shot 3 days after I was born. My mother was still in the hospital with me, (in those days the hospitals didn't just kick a mother out right away) and the doctor who delivered me came in to tell her the news. Apparently, he'd felt this was a good thing; Malcolm X was a troublemaker.
My father attended the trial of the two men accused of the murder--he was supposed to write an article for the Saturday Evening Post, but after sitting at the trial every day, he became convinced that one of the men was not guilty, and was being railroaded. He ended up not writing the article; he couldn't say, was uncomfortable writing what he really thought.*
When we got home from the hospital, Bigbear and I, a neighbor came by to visit the baby me and remarked that I had "good" hair... Between that seemingly innocuous comment, the death of Malcolm X and the subsequent trial, my father decided to leave the country. Malcolm X's question rang in his ears :"Who taught you to hate the texture of your hair?" He decided he didn't want me to grow up knowing self-hatred, questioning who I was or where I fit in.
So we left.
We were out of the country for ten years. I grew up not really knowing what racism was. I knew what "caste" was. I knew that in Jamaica the fact that I was "light" compared to my sister was preferable, but the Professor had "good hair" (as I got older my hair ended up being more like Poppy's, and the Professor's was more like BigBear's Native ancestors), but since we were all in the same family, we tended to defy the caste system. The fact that very-light Bigbear was actually married to much-browner Poppy was something of a confusion in Jamaica, because at least back then, "light-skinned" Jamaicans sort of stuck together, marrying their own shade. But "caste" wasn't the same as racism, because everybody was still Jamaican. "Shade" was not the same thing as "race". You were only different if you were from "Foreign", like I was.
I'd had a much earlier experience with racism as a toddler in Paris, but at the time I didn't understand it. I wrote about it here, under the "September 7th" heading. And when we first came back to America in '77, we sat in a Chicago motel watching the racially-charged school-busing protests. But while it was disturbing to see, the protests weren't directed at me.
When we got to New York I experienced racism personally, ironically enough on another playground, this time in Central Park on the upper West Side of Manhattan. The Professor and I were standing on a wooden platform, along with a bunch of other kids, waiting for a tire swing. As the swing came toward us, the Professor got into position to grab the rope to catch it. She was little, and eager and accidentally jostled an older kid standing next to her. The older kid turned to her friend and said "that's the problem with Black people, they're always pushing" or something like that.
I remember being dumbstruck. Speechless. For one thing, the fact that the Professor was "black" had no bearing on the situation whatsoever. Secondly, she was so little. Much younger than the two kids in question. And then I realized we were probably the only "black" kids in the playground. I wanted to leave, but I also didn't want the Professor to know what had happened. I didn't want her feelings hurt. And I was mad. Mad because the comments weren't logical, yet they seemed to carry such weight to the kids speaking. Mad because my little sister was 9 and these kids were older, and mean. And... how could she be lumped in with a bunch of people when the speaker didn't know anything about her?
I remember thinking "wow. Poppy was right. There ARE people who don't like me because I'm brown!" He had always told us about racism, told us how he hadn't wanted us to grow up believing it, and that's why we left America.
But we were ALWAYS American, and proudly so. In Paris, I was American. And later, in Jamaica, brown as I was, I was never Jamaican. My "belly string" wasn't cut there, and so no matter how well I spoke Patois (and I was fluent, yunuh. No twang atall, atall. Mi speak so well mi mudda tell me mi nah fe speak patois inna de 'ouse. Mus ONGLE speak Amercan English! Cho!) I would never be Jamaican.
It was unbelievably ironic that here I was, "home" in my own country, and yet...
While we were in Jamaica, I learned a lot about Jamaican History. I learned the Jamaican National Motto "Out of Many, One People." I learned how Jamaicans celebrated that there were people from all over the world... most usually Chinese and East Indian, but also Pakistani, English, Syrian, American. But as long as they were born there, they were Jamaican.
Through Poppy, we also learned about American History, about the Africans who were brought over as slaves, about the Buffalo Soldiers, about the Indians. About Pearl Harbor and World War II, and how grandpa got a medal for helping integrate the Army. We learned about my other great-great grandfather, Marin, who spoke German and came from Alsace-Lorraine, and left his German wife and children for great-great grandma Josephine, the daughter of a confederate colonel and his slave. How Marin had given his daughter, my great-grandma and namesake, a medal he had won in a shooting match in Savannah. Poppy would show us the medal; it was written in German. We learned about our great-grandfather, the Puerto Rican, who rolled cigars and played guitar and went to jail for smashing all the glasses in an Irish bar in the Bronx, because the bartender smashed his glass after he drank out of it.
At the time, we didn't know too much about BigBear's family history, but we knew that great-grandpa was one of the first "Blacks" at Harvard. Even though he was also partially Indian.
We learned about Frederick Douglas; Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver. I read their autobiographies. I read "Huckleberry Finn" and had to write a book report about it. I tried to imagine what it must have been like for Huck to decide not to turn his friend, Nigger Jim, in to the slavecatchers. I wondered why that was even a struggle for him... afterall, Nigger Jim was better to him than Huck's own alcoholic and abusive father.
Then I came to America. And nothing that I knew was ever discussed during my Global History or Social Studies classes. There was barely any mention of slavery. We learned that slaves picked cotton and tried to run away and got beaten. There were very few pictures. We learned about George Washington, our first President, and about Lincoln, who freed the slaves. We spent lots and lots of time talking about the Depression. We learned about Dr. Martin Luther King. Only the "black" teachers--and among them, only the "cool" ones like Brother Lee the music teacher, ever talked about Malcolm.
As I got older, I became aware of "Black History Month" but I never learned anything really new. I had already learned about Jean Baptiste Point Du Sable, the founder of Chicago, or Benjamin Banneker who built a clock out of wood, having read about them in the pages of the Highlights Magazines that my grandmother sent to us, or in the books Poppy would bring home from the library once or twice a month while we still lived in Jamaica. There would be those lists of "great inventions by Black Americans" like the traffic signal, the machine that mass-produced shoes, and of course Dr.Carver's peanut experiments.
I suppose none of this really explains why I hate Black History Month. I think the thing is... you never really learn anything new. Advertisers, seeking to get their "Black" demographics to buy more Uncle Ben's rice or Colgate toothpaste or Tide laundry detergent sponsor special programs. There are lots of reproductions of Kente cloth, and portraits of upstanding but "safe" Americans of African descent like Martin Luther King, Shirley Chisholm, Paul Robeson, Mahalia Jackson. (My girl over at Swagger City posted a picture of a "Black History Month" display in a local Walgreens.) People talk about the struggle, about our strength as a people, the horrors of slavery. Henry Louis Gates programs about tracing black roots air on PBS, stopping short of explaining that there WAS love between the races. That often "race designation" was an arbitrary thing. He NEVER delves into the relationships between Africans and Indians, other than to remark that the Cherokee and Chickasaw held slaves, or the relationships between indentured Irish servants and Africans. There are lots and lots of pictures of stone-faced and stoic AfricanAmericans in Victorian dress. None of those pictures look like the pictures of my family. None of what I see, including Gates' very interesting programs, explains my family, explains me. All of what is presented talks about the differences between us, between us and "white" Americans. Instead of bringing us together.
And even worse, come March 1st, all is forgotten until next year.
To me, Black History month is polarizing. I mentioned "I hate Black History Month" to my Latina friend, and her response was "I know. Why do Black People get a month? It's not like there's a Latin History Month." And that wasn't my point. Besides, she was wrong... there is a Hispanic Heritage month from mid-Sept to mid-October). And there is Asian-Heritage Month (May), and Jewish Heritage Month (also May) and Native American and Indian Heritage Month (November), but somehow nobody knows about them. And when they find out, nobody seems to resent it.
My favorite comment about Black History Month is "We'd be racist if there was a White History Month". Which pisses me off to no end, because while there's a month set aside for Black History, every day is white history month. As a "minority," sitting in your history class, learning about whatever, it's all from the perspective of the people writing it. And most of the writers are of European descent--at least for the text books. "For the purposes of this class", my History of Graphic Design professor said to me at Pratt, "we won't talk about Africa, since we are referring to written history, to print. And that technology didn't exist in Africa during the Renaissance."
Besides, there are any number of holidays celebrating "white" or Euro-heritage... Presidents Day, for example. Or Columbus Day. Independence Day. Because while we celebrate the Independence of our great country from British Rule, the Constitution was written for white men by white men, since at the time those of us of African descent--many of which were slaves--were distinctly left out of the right to pursue life, liberty and happiness, being that they were considered 3/5ths of a human being. And Veterans Day, which began life as Armistice Day, celebrates white history... the history of white WWI vets. Those of African descent were not allowed to be active soldiers in that war. My own grandfather was shipped off to Europe to shovel horseshit for the cavalry, because "blacks" weren't allowed to be soldiers. Their history will not be celebrated.
I know that Black History Month is supposed to be a good thing. It's supposed to help those of us of African Descent answer the question, "Who are you?"
And yet... "Where are you from?" I'm asked regularly, sometimes after I've first been spoken to in Spanish, and have indicated I don't yet speak the language. "I'm from here. I'm American."
"Oh, but where were your parents from?" they persist.
"From here. They are American, too."
"But what's your ethnicity?" they insist.
"Well, I'm Native and African and Puerto Rican, German, Scottish and Irish."
"Oh, a mutt!" Sometimes. Or "Oh, you're Black." Or "I didn't know Black people had hair like that!"
I know who I am. I am American. I have dug far back in my history, currently as far back as 1817, and of all those folks I dug up, all those ancestors, exactly 3 were from other countries: the man Marin, born in Barcelona but grew up in Alsace. The Puerto Rican Garcia, from Ponce. The Haitian slave girl Ouidette. The rest were all born in this country. There are others I haven't found yet, Serah from Madagascar, and someone on my father's side who had come directly from Africa by missionaries. The Irishman who gave my father's family his last name... who lived with his "black" wife and had many children (8, I think). And of course the parents and grandparents who came from Africa, from Ireland, from Scotland. This history is mine, my every day, my life.
In my apartment, I've collected books, books on the "Black Experience" in America, on Native Americans, on Black Indians. And now books about Albania, so that the Sun can learn about his heritage.
I hate Black History month because I'm American. ALL of this country's history is my history; the good, the bad, the awful. I belong to the bigger picture... my ancestors walked in these woods and fished in clear streams. My ancestors knew the swamps. My ancestors toiled in fields, were bought and sold, and bought their own way out of slavery, ran for government office, worked on the railroads, pulled dray carts. They went to college and founded companies and fought against racism and unfair housing. They were gunsmiths and cigar rollers, businessmen and lawyers. Home makers and social workers, seamstresses and teachers. They are part of this country, part of me. I own them all. I claim them all. Whether they choose to claim me is irrelevant. I couldn't exist anywhere else but here. My Sun will claim them, too, as well as his Albanian ancestors. For me to only claim a portion... set aside the "black" portion to explain my existence, goes against everything I know about myself, about my family. I didn't grow up here; I wasn't taught that I was "different" from other Americans because I was "black". In the context of Europe, or Jamaica, I was American, and that's how I identify myself. I didn't grow up questioning where I fit in, because I knew I didn't fit in in Jamaica.... because I was American.
It's ironic that this year, this February has been an outstanding month in the history of this country. For the first time in the history of this country, a man of African descent is seeking the nomination for President, and actually has a shot. He can hold his own with the nastiest of jabs, can mesmerize crowds without pissing off too many people. In fact, so many people show up to his rallies that sometimes they haven't been able to get in to see him.
Some people welcome him, are anxious to see the history in this country change. Other people are not so welcoming. Some of them are "white". Some of them are not. People have various reactions... and while he has a shot at getting the nomination, and he has a chance at being President, whether he achieves this or not he has already changed the course of history. In my lifetime. For the first time in my adult, voting life, I'm proud of my country for being open-minded enough to see him as a viable candidate, and not just a "black man".
Some Americans of European descent don't want a Black president. They say it's because he's "inexperienced", but some of the anonymous comments I've seen posted in response to online news stories clearly indicate the issue is his color.
Some Americans of African descent don't want a Black president. Some claim they fear for his life. Some claim that if he fails as a man or as a president, his failure will further stain "black" people's reputation. Others feel he's not "black" enough, that he doesn't speak to "black" issues. Some of their posted comments clearly indicate the issue is his color.
This month, in February, I've been reading his first book. Like me, he didn't grow up here. Like me, he understands the difference between "caste" and racism. Like me, living in another country, he was always "American". Until he discovered he was also "black", and learned what that meant. He claims to have first discovered that it might not be desirable to be black when he was 9 or 10, and saw a picture in Life magazine of a black man who had damaged himself, trying to lighten his skin (Life magazine denies the article and photos exist. But in the old Ebony magazine that my mother appeared in in 1957, there are pages of ads for skin-whitening products. And these products exist and are used even today, and some of them cause serious damage. One place in particular is on Two-Five--and BigBear swears it's a money-laundering op since we never see customers in the joint--and professes to sell such a product).
"Who taught you to hate the color of your skin, to such extent that you will bleach, to look like the white man?"
We won't stop hating ourselves as people of African descent until we know our history. We have been stripped of our history, have been told our history was lost, unaccounted for, non-existent. But this isn't true. You cannot erase history. You can "lose it" for a time, but somebody somewhere knows something... you just have to start the process of learning where to look, learning who to ask. Learning what questions to ask and how to ask them. But I have found, when researching my own history, that when I stuck to the "black" section, I found nothing. When I expanded my outlook to not just look in the "black" section, I found amazing things.
Because my history is part of the larger picture, and I know that for all of us--no matter what color we are, this would hold true. If you're born here, you are American.
* Poppy wrote an article about his perspective. It is published here. If you are surfing in from a University site, something that ends in ".edu", you should be able to see it for free. If you're outside of a University domain, you'll probably have to buy it.