I am a white guy who gets excited about Black History Month. Why? Do Black people need my help? No. They are doing fine without me. They speak for themselves in every beautiful way through both word and action. So who needs me? White folks.
I talk about Black history for the sake of white people, because we sometimes find ourselves unware of the full contribution Black Americans have made to our culture and country. To paraphrase W. Kamau Bell, Do you know how much of American culture was invented by Black people? All of it. (I looked it up. He’s not far off.)
Sometimes we white people get shut into the pressure cooker of “This is OUR land and everyone is against us.” But it’s false pressure. It’s a self-imposed game of king of the hill. When someone is asking for equality, they are not trying to destroy you. They want to be equal. That’s what “equality” is.
When women, for example, demand equality they are not necessarily against men. They just want equality. If equality threatens you, it’s a sign that you know you’re the one in power currently.
You should hear the jokes young men make when they discuss equality for women after reading Mary Wollstonecraft or Susan B. Anthony. Why the jokes? Because they feel threatened. Because they sense they are benefitting from patriarchy, and they don’t want to lose any bit of that.
So here I am, a white guy, in the 21st century, who has heard too many times someone say that American and European cultures are white civilizations, and that “we” don’t have to give “everyone else” access to that. Too many times have I heard someone suggest that real America is white America. And if they know not to say it outright for fear of being identified as racist, they hint at it just enough. I may not be woke, but I can hear dog whistles.
I am tired of that mentality, and I’m tired of being a white guy who sits back and lets other white guys believe it.
Simply put, America was built with slave labor on Native American land. Stop and consider the lyrics to the Civil Rights anthem by the Staple Singers, “When Will We Be Paid?”
We have worked this country from shore to shore, Our women cooked all your food and washed all your clothes, We picked all your cotton and laid the railroad steel, Worked our hands to the bone at your lumber mill… We fought in your wars in every land, To keep this country free, y’all, for women, children and men
But it’s not fair to anyone to leave it “simply put,” because there is so much more to the story. So many great things about America were contributed by people of all walks of life. Black History Month is just a chance to focus on one very important group. And it’s a group without which the America we know would not exist.
We have given our sweat and all our tears, We stumbled through this life for more than 300 years, We’ve been separated from the language we knew, Stripped of our culture, people, you know it’s true…
That’s why we have to slow down and look intently at the contributions of Black individuals and groups. We have to dig up and remember the forgotten or fading stories, because each one is a piece of a country we claim to love. The more of those pieces we collect, the more we see the real America and not the edited version.
Think of the way Disney cleans up Grimm’s Fairy Tales to make movies for kids. Think of the way we sanitize Bible stories for Sunday School children. That’s not even as dishonest as what we do with our nation’s history.
Let’s try this again: Think of the way Disney has cleaned up its own history for commercial consumption by removing racist scenes from films like Fantasia or burying Song of the South. Or think again to some churches who hang up pictures of blue-eyed Jesus and tout the poetic beauty of the King James ENGLISH Bible.
That’s closer to what we do to the history of America, and it’s not to protect children’s minds. It’s to protect our own pride, and we are adults.
Why do I even care about this? Is it “white guilt”? No.
Guilt is a useless emotion when it comes to stuff like this, because it causes people to look away.
I care about this, because racism is a lie. As one author puts it, it’s America’s Original Sin. The harder we look at the truth, the less likely it will be that lies fool us.
I happen to think that when white folks study Black history lots of good things happen. We become more appreciative, less arrogant, and less afraid of “the other.” That last one is very important, because fear motivates too many of our decisions and attitudes toward each other.
If we can stop seeing America as some kind of white promised land we have to defend, we could be something closer to united.