Black History Month: A Reminder Of…
It’s everyone’s favorite shortest month of the year: Black History Month! It’s usually treated as something of a reminder, along the lines of “remember that black people invented things and created and had visions and dreams that were realized through hard work, just like regular people?” It is also a month that people complain about, because those of us on the high end of the axis of privilege tend to get frustrated when anyone else gets any spotlight at all. For me, as a black American, the month brings two emotions to the fore: pride and sadness.
A Reason To Be Proud?
Imagine this: you are taken from your home country. You expect some hardships ahead; you’re no stranger to the idea of the enslavement of rivals, but your particular fate is much worse. You are packed into a cargo hold like felled timber. You endure a three month voyage packed into a ship bowel of starved, sickened bodies, eating nothing but vile gruel, and overwhelmed by the stench of disease and death. Your reward on arrival: a life sentence of hard labor among people speaking a strange language and worshipping a foreign, but surely monstrous deity that allowed this.
Humanity can get used to a surprising amount of difficulty. So somehow, you stay sane. You learn enough of the language from a few people from your area. You work your 10-16 hour days in the sun and rain and cold. You learn the truth about this deity and how your masters have twisted his words. And so you come to believe, subversively. You even manage to fall in love.
You have a child. The child is always hungry, and the scraps and gruel – only slightly better than what you forced down on the boat – barely keep her well. What’s worse? You know the horrific day is coming where your child will join you in the field, or in the service of the master in the house.
You watch your wife bear another child with a pale, ruddy complexion unlike the rich molasses that you and she share, and you know why. You see your master’s wife pointing at your wife and crying. Two days later, men come and take her from your cabin. You never see her again.
You grow old – full of days, but empty of joy. Your teenage children take care of you when they can get a few minutes between their own labors. You are 33 years old.
I look at people who lived as my forebears did, had the same physical traits, lived under the same constraints, and see what they accomplished in spite of that. I can’t help but be proud. To endure all of that, and to produce a culture that has consistently shaped America’s direction. To stand strong and not only adopt a foreign faith, but to play a crucial role as voices that pointed to its deeper truths lost through greed and the desire for control over flesh. Yet, how can I not grieve over a story like the above? A story that may have been my great-great grandfather’s, or an ancestral uncle’s? A story that was repeated millions of times over across this land, and in varying forms across the hemisphere?
The Cycle: Always Present, Never Changing
These threads persisted beyond the end of mass enslavement, and well into the lives of sharecroppers, deliberately kept in debt, eking out an existence in red clay. They persisted into the lives of the millions who fled the nightmare of Jim Crow to seek a better life in the North, only to find denied job opportunities and scarce, poorly maintained housing. They wove themselves into the lives of GIs who fought for the best of our values and returned home to a separate and unequal existence after Germany, and communities flooded with drugs and despair after Vietnam. It is this continual weaving and reweaving that I lament, as generation after generation of my ancestors fought the battle anew, even as I celebrate how they triumphed and managed to produce another generation with enough fight in them to keep going.
I have pride in the generations of musicians, actors, and intellectuals my people have produced. And yet, I lament at the number of artists who, touched with fire, became consumed under the pressure of simply existing as a black person in this country. We know genius and insanity are close kin, and it’s possible that some of these artists would have been derailed anyway. But how many productive geniuses were cut short unnecessarily? I think of Donny Hathaway’s unsuccessful battle with schizophrenia, of Charlie Parker’s stints in mental hospitals, of the countless artists who self-medicated with illegal drugs and alcohol and died young. For those that lived, many, like Nina Simone, Paul Robeson, and W.E.B. Du Bois, were embittered by both the constant undercurrent of racism and explicit pursuit by the U.S. government for protest activities.
I also think of those of us with less dramatic stories, accomplishing in the business world, or making strides in academia. How many brilliant minds are thwarted from reaching their full potential because of the weight of processing one’s daily existence takes up too many brain cycles? And what disservice have we done to ourselves by painting [Dr. Martin Luther] King as a Messiah who can let us declare “It is finished”, rather than showing him to be simply a prophet speaking truth to the kings of his day? This is why we can’t have effective conversations, because people think of the bloodstained balcony as America’s cross – absolving it of sin and not even requiring the change of heart that Christianity causes when practiced well.
However flawed racial identity may be, it’s been made real through hundreds of years of training and we can’t just wish it away. Instead, we’ll have to go about the much harder work of unlearning through difficult conversations and introspection. Much like with Christianity itself, a dedication to radical love and inner change is the only work that primes us to bear positive fruit.
C. G. Brown thinks a lot about current events, racial reconciliation, and technology. He makes a living by writing and helping people manage software. He makes a life with his wife, friends, and occasional musical instruments in Atlanta. You can follow his musings at his blog at http://brokenbeatnik.com, his Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/cgbrown, or occasionally on Twitter at @brokenbeatnik.