I was called a nigger for the first time last year in Williamsburg, New York. As my car pulled out of a parking spot, a bicyclist rode by and screamed, “fucking niggers!!!” at my car. I was in the car with my 10-year old daughter and 26-year old assistant who was driving. Interestingly, we three had uniquely distinctive reactions in the moments that followed. My assistant was mortified and immediately enraged- I had to talk her down from chasing the guy on the bike. My daughter was oblivious but concerned at our reactions. And I, though shocked and amazed, started laughing. There was something so surreal about it and in the midst of it I was very clear I had a choice as to what I did with that moment. My assistant automatically absorbed it. My daughter tried to lasso it flying over her head. And I chose to deflect it.
Though admittedly in shock, I was genuinely curious about the unfolding events. The guy on the bike clearly has some serious issues centering around rage and race. He could have shouted “asshole” like most drivers (at least in L.A.), but instead he spewed the word “nigger”. This still powerful word in turn triggered an equally powerless reaction of my assistant who, unable to access her own hurt, now mirrored his rage – and then upped the ante to retaliation. In the passenger seat, a stone of sadness landed in the pit of my stomach- a sadness at having this teaching moment thrust upon me. A new word had just entered my daughter’s psyche and vocabulary and it was now up to me to define its parameters. Although in that moment I remained calm and clear that the word “nigger” had nothing to do with me, I am acutely aware that in these United States – regardless of how real or not real that word is to me – I, like many others could lose my life at the hands of that kind of ignorance. The inner fear and powerlessness that gives rise to that kind of separatist thinking and objectifying of others also gives rise to enemy behavior. In that moment, my assistant and I , as well as my 10 year old daughter… we were the enemy. I live in a country where in a super cool, ultra hip Gen X neighborhood, I can still be called a nigger.
So here we are in the middle of Black History Month….and I gotta tell you, I am very conflicted about this whole Black History Month thing. There is something about the labeling of it, the relegation of this month that makes me cringe. I know I probably just offended someone but it’s the truth. The phrase feels so uncomfortable. Black History Month????? What is that?!!! Is this the month the country focuses on the history of blacks in this country? Cause that aint happening. Is it the month when black people have overt public bragging rights to our heroes and heroines? Maybe….but not happening. Is it a month of national rememberance and atonement? Naught!!!!! What are we meant to do with it?!!!!! Ok, there is some lip service given to it – mostly in the press – but how does it actually pertain to our day to day lives? Honestly……..it feels like a scrap that is thrown out the back door to a dog that has been tied up in the yard its entire life. It has never known real freedom, but once a year it gets a taste of steak and in that moment the ignorantly, benevolent master walks away proud and self satisfied in the knowledge that he is indeed an animal lover. Black History Month feels like that bone, that scrap-and a part of me resents it. And yet there’s another side to this, obviously.
On Friday last, I sat in my daughter’s classroom where I was invited to be a 4th grader for a day. Above her teacher’s smart board were the photos of all the Presidents past and present of the United States. On the very end was a solitary singularly dark face and my heart rose up. Barack Hussein Obama. I thought here is Black History in the making in a way that we have probably never seen. The history of this country, like all history, has been thus far documented by the “winners”. But I do believe that maybe for the very first time in history, we are now active co-writers in the retelling of American history. We are still burying our young black men, still having to insist that black lives matter -I can still be called a nigger in the trendiest part of New York City while the most powerful man on the planet is a Black Man. In the midst of extraordinary change some things remain the same. History repeating itself at the same time it is galloping forward. This is a very schizy time in Black History…or is it American History?
The other question is….. Do most White people even register Black History Month? Is it important? Do they value it? Does it affect their immediate personal lives in any significant way? Is it a catalyst for healing or enlightenment or realizations of any kind? I think not. I think it is at best tolerated and mostly ignored – like a dark cloud passing overhead that you hope doesn’t rain on you. You look up- see the cloud and go on with your life, vaguely registering that maybe a storm is coming. And if it does come, you’re safely at home.
George Orwell wrote “The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history”. I think schools may be the one place where this effort may bear fruit. Early recognition of the complex history of blacks in this country may aid the next generations in creating the bridge so desperately needed to cross the racial divide. Small ideas influence children in big ways and though change sometimes takes forever the sparks of it can ignite in an instant.
Race in this country is such a loaded subject. We have yet to scratch the surface of it. I don’t claim to have many answers but I do know that Black History isn’t only for Black people. It isn’t Black history or White history- it’s both of our histories. Walking in a protest march in New York City, a young student close by began singing “…we shall overcome, we shall over come” and here again was history repeating itself. A history that has left us scared and angry, and guilty and sorrowful and shamed. There is a soul debt upon us. A debt incurred on the slave ships, on the auction blocks, in the Middle Passage, in the planting fields. One that has carried over to Bloody Sunday, to the L.A. riots, to Eric Garner to “Boycott the Oscars”. There still hangs over our heads a heavy dark cloud that we are all terrified will burst. Because sure as hell, we’re all getting soaked. I think it’s filled with tears….Black tears and White tears – all our tears held at bay for far too long and only the act of weeping together can wash us clean. And so I will find a way to honor the heart of Black History Month even though I don’t quite believe in it. I will honor it while I pray for the day we no longer need it.
And won’t that be Lovely.