Dear African Americans,
As a citizen of New York, every year I witness many different ethnic groups who party until they are exhausted during any celebration that is done in remembrance of their culture. The Grand Concourse in the Bronx is often inundated by thousands of Dominican Americans who come out to witness the annual celebration of their culture that is the Dominican Day Parade. Manhattan is brought to a virtual standstill by the more famous Puerto Rican Day Parade. Brooklyn’s infrastructure is strained by the sheer number of sons and daughters of the Caribbean who come out to enjoy the West Indian Day Parade. And though the St. Patrick’s Day parade has morphed into more of a multicultural celebration than an Irish one in recent years, the day is still embraced by Irish Americans.
I have been in attendance to these celebrations in the past. Though every big city parade has its own logistical nightmares, it's largely an atmosphere of revelry, fun, and happiness. But as an African American watching from the sidelines, I cannot help but think, "Damn, it would be nice to wear the flag of the country my family is from.”
When it comes to African Americans, our celebrations are always half-hearted, last minute, muted and largely unattended. MLK Day parades in cities such as New York City, Los Angeles and even smaller cities like Trenton, NJ are swallowed in a solemn mood. Cars with flyers taped to them act as floats. They are rarely the crowded celebratory processions in other communities. No mainstream politicians waving. No drill teams, high school sports teams, and ebony beauty queens. And when the parade reaches its finishing point, attendance quickly evaporates.
That is not the case with other ethnic and racial minority celebrations in America that have one day, while African Americans are awarded twenty-eight. As our elementary school lessons taught us, Black History Month was the brainchild of Carter G. Woodson and grew from Negro History Week. The goal was simple: educate the nation on the accomplishments and history of the country’s racial minority, the African American. But in modern times we find a populous of native-born blacks who are at best indifferent to the month that was designed to teach us all about the contributions and achievements of their forefathers.
In an ideal world there would be no need to set aside a month to celebrate the accomplishments and achievements of one group of people. In this hypothetical perfect place, there would be no disenfranchised groups of people nor any efforts to demean or undermine their importance to the growth of this nation. But we don’t live on a hypothetical planet. We live on a real one.
I sometimes imagine that the average American who is not of African descent might think that Black History Month is some grand season of celebration and remembrance for all African Americans. I mean, every other ethnic group that has time set aside will wrap themselves in their flags, customs and proudly recall the achievements of their ancestors. I imagine that any people who are given an entire month to celebrate themselves would develop a celebration that would grow to be the envy of all races and ethnic groups who would lay eyes upon it. These people would love themselves and thus be better suited to love others. Their industriousness would be the envy of all who observed it.
Instead, we are looked upon as being super-athletic, hypersexual, and a burden on the nation as a whole. What was thought to be true in 1914 is still believed to be true in 2014 by many powerful men in the majority.
He is but a grown up child, and must be governed as a child, not as a lunatic or criminal. The master occupies towards him the place of parent or guardian. We shall not dwell on this view, for no one will differ with us who thinks as we do of the negro’s capacity….Secondly, the negro is improvident (unable to plan for the future); will not lay up in summer for the wants of winter; will not accumulate in youth for the exigencies of age. He would become an insufferable burden to society. Society has the right to prevent this, and can only do so by subjecting him to domestic slavery.
– Social theorist George Fitzhugh from his 1854 book Sociology for the South.
Reading that quote makes me wonder about how many African-Americans have retirement plans.
From the Three-Fifths Compromise of 1787, through the Reconstruction era of 1877, from the Civil Rights Movement of the 60s, and the Drug War of the 70s and 80s, the history of African Americans is overshadowed by the monolith of institutionalized racism. Neo-conservative talking heads often try to shame black people whenever a blatantly racist circumstance comes to light. They speak as if we actually enjoy racism.
While many of the white citizenry of the United States struggle to comprehend how racism in America has been something of a generational curse for the Union, we know all too well of its effects. There are black people that would readily dismiss African American history in the United States as a whole in favor of teaching our children about the achievements of the African Diaspora as a whole. They would readily embrace tales of ancient Kush, Hannibal Barca and the libraries of Timbuktu before “lowering” themselves to discuss slavery. The peculiar part about that mindset is that most people who are the descendants of African slaves in America do not know from what tribe or region their ancestors came and would embrace the history of an entire continent rather than embrace the history of their direct ancestors here in America. All sorts of odd mechanisms and quasi-African devices are utilized to that end.
According to Webster’s Dictionary, the definition of post-traumatic stress disorder is: A condition of persistent mental and emotional stress occurring as a result of injury or severe psychological shock, typically involving disturbance of sleep and constant vivid recall of the experience, with dulled responses to others and to the outside world.
The pain and ideology that seeped through the cracks of time since before slavery remains largely unchanged like a deadly radioactive element to the African American experience in America. Our very existence is a bane to some. And we often act as if we agree. It reminds me of that scene from the Matrix II where the murderous squid-robot Sentinels were burrowing down toward the last vestige of humanity on the eve of the final climactic battle. But the citizens of Zion didn’t worry or fret. Knowing the chaos coming, they celebrated life, dancing and partying while they still could.
It’s a fitting allegory for us. We should all be so determined to celebrate our lives, freedom and every monumental step that we as a people have taken since the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. We celebrate our lives by acknowledging the struggles of our neighbors without judgment, by standing for decency in our daily lives without hubris, and by trying to be people that our forefathers would readily recognize as their own. We teach our children like griots sharing with love and reverence.
We often complain among ourselves, about how other people in the African Diaspora treat American blacks. However, the African American cannot expect respect from his cousins while he disrespects his brothers, sisters and his own history everyday.
As yet another Black History Month undoubtedly goes unexplored by most Americans, it is our duty to remind ourselves and other African Americans of the necessary knowledge on how we have thrived beyond all expectations. Despite today’s artificially bloated prison statistics, murder rates, teen pregnancy, and gang membership numbers, our history in America is a success story unlike any other. Stripped of language, land, wealth, culture, tribe and family, our foremothers and forefathers soldiered on while building a country that is one of the most powerful in the world. Their history is not only a black story, but a successful American story. And we must always remember and celebrate.