March 4th, 2010

Black History Month is a fucking joke.

I’m writing this four days after February, the month designated in America for recognition of the history of blacks. And it is not enough. Good lord is it not enough.

The history of blacks in America, their enslavement, freedom, oppression, freedom again, and the final hurdle of unconscious discrimination is the single most important part of the history of the United States and American culture, and what makes it unique and broadly misunderstood by people raised in other cultures.

It’s so important that we don’t need a single month remember this complex and sorrowful part of our collective past: it should be deeply investigated by grade level students. I’m not talking about merely watching Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech and recounting the tale of Rosa Parks and making face masks of famous blacks. I’m talking about reading the speeches of Frederick Douglass (especially his Independence Day speech, which today sounds like something that one would hear on The Daily Show); I’m talking about seeing a living history example of real life as a slave, and getting, if only a glimpse, of the deep, lifelong horror of being treated as property, oftentimes lower than that of a horse; I’m talking about lessons in discrimination, close to what Jane Elliott did with her class; I’m talking about music appreciation classes with an emphasis on the the black subculture’s* influence on American music; etc. The biggest hurdle is getting people to understand slavery and how it shaped everything that came afterward; I suspect modeling education on that used to teach about the Jewish Holocaust.

Why is this so important?

Take a look at your musical preferences – even if you aren’t directly persuaded by American culture. Chances are good that you can trace the influences of your favorite artists to the experiments of several black musicians from the early Twentieth Century. But this is superficial.

The history of blacks in America is deeply intertwined in what makes an American, and why people from other cultures look upon us with perplexion. Our ancestors talked of freedom and liberty – which kind of sounded like they were meant for everybody but really only meant white, landowning males. These same men who orated at length about the ‘American spirit’ themselves (or let their brethren) to treat other fellow humans as property. For two hundred years these downtrodden – ultimately only considered inferior because of the pigmentation of their skin – survived under brutal, soul-crushing conditions. A few paragraphs back I mentioned the Jewish Holocaust, another blight point in human history – but comparisons are deceitful: the Jews sent to their deaths once knew something like freedom in their lifetimes; blacks often (and especially after 1800, when importation of slaves was made illegal) were several generations into enslavement and torture. Imagine if the Holocaust were still running today, and you might be able to imagine the extensive suffering.

And yet! And yet, through brutal torture beyond justification, humanity endured. Slaves fought to keep their families together and kept alive through songs and even jokes. Here’s a firsthand account† about that peculiar attempt at joy:

They say that slaves are happy, because they laugh, and are merry. I myself and three or four others, have received two hundred lashes in the day, and had our feet in fetters; yet, at night, we would sing and dance, and make others laugh at the rattling of our chains. Happy men we must have been! We did it to keep down trouble, and to keep our hearts from being completely broken: that is as true as the gospel! Just look at it, – must not we have been very happy? Yet I have done it myself – I have cut capers in chains.‡

There are very few alive today – and especially in the United States – who has experience of being so consistently crushed in spirit from birth that they entertain themselves to keep from being overtaken by the hopelessness of their situation. But the experience of both sides, slave and master, remain a key to understanding the mindset of an American today.

We americans struggle with subtle racism even when when aren’t consciously aware of judging others by superficial traits. Here’s the rub about those superficial traits: sometimes they have more to do with the superficial traits of our ancestors. By being an oppressed minority they were afforded fewer opportunities which trickled down to current generations.

For those of you who haven’t spent much time in America, the racism espoused by blacks may be perplexing. For other Americans, you may have only unconsciously noticed the racism of minorities. It’s a strange concept to grasp. There has been a separation between white and black social groups for so long that they have progressed along parallel lines yet are intimately connected. This has fostered a subtle hostility between the two groups – note that this has to do with culture and upbringing and not race††.

This is our heritage. We can’t escape the racism of our ancestors because it has tinged the little things that contribute to our identities. Just as language can change how we think, the popular entertainments we enjoy carry on the prejudices of past. It sounds ludicrous today, but the direct ancestor of most of popular American entertainment comes from blackface minstrelsy, where a white actor puts on makeup and mimics the stereotype of the lazy, ignorant black of the nineteenth century. Minstrels were lowbrow variety shows which contributed to modern concepts of celebrity, shameless promotion, and American humor. As the shows became more popular, even black performers would put on “blackface” – dark makeup with exaggerated lip color and size – and perform.

Take Bert Williams. Bert was a successful, wealthy Broadway performer. He put on blackface and performed for white audiences. He was also black…think about that: to fit in as an entertainer he had to look like white performers trying to look like him. He would use the pidgin english of the black stereotype (think of how black actors in movies from the thirties sound), bumble around stage – and sing songs with lyrics like this:

When life seems full of clouds and rain,
And I am filled with naught but pain,
Who soothes my thumping, bumping brain?


The pathos a black performer must have felt to be both popular in blackface and daily treated as second-class is the heart of why it is important to study black history.

Or consider Birth Of A Nation. The racism in this silent epic movie is deeply offensive: the Klu Klux Klan comes off as knights of decency. But just about every element of modern film storytelling was invented for this movie. Roger Ebert needed two articles‡‡ to address this dissonance for his Great Films series.

Finally, you must listen to the song “Strange Fruit,” sung by Billie Holiday:

The intersection of suffering and beauty is where high art meets the human experience.

My point

Nearly four hundred years ago Europeans began settling along the coast of an undiscovered continent. In addition to destroying the lives and cultures of peoples who already lived there§, they also imported slaves by the thousands for a cheap source of energy. The generations of suffering, degradation, and shameful acts that went into making a country that’s so rich today that the poor can afford to pay a monthly fee for hundreds of television channels. It is by the miracle of the will of the enslaved that their ancestors are alive today. And though the law now protects the rights of all races equally, every little thing that makes someone an American carries the baggage of slavery. And when that brutal form of submission was made illegal our ancestors still treated the newly-free as inferiors – simultaneously exploiting them for entertainment and still-cheap-but-less-so labor. And very few thought this was entirely wrong.

We can say we’re better then they were, and we are. We have finally relegated our racism to shame. Deep down every human has an unconscious aversion to strangers and people not like us, a holdover from the days of constantly fighting for survival on the African savannah. It’s easy to judge someone as different by their skin color or other physical attributes – but we can consciously change this urge and that is how one deals with racism.

However we may try we cannot escape our past. There are remnants of our horrible past everywhere we look and hear. The things we do to entertain ourselves have traces of past amusements that owe to the prolonged enslavement of Africans and their ancestors. Our laws have been modified and changed from blatant discrimination to inclusiveness of all with American citizenship. Our slang, our dialectal quirks, and the names we give ourselves have origins in the arbitrary division of whites and blacks.

I don’t see blacks as a minority, I don’t see them as a specific group of people. There are subcultures in America that more or less fall along a person’s race, but that is a holdover of our past. Their – our – black ancestors have stories that aren’t being told, stories that can help us know who we are and where we are going. Black history is a pattern language that is unique to American culture, and it is the duty of everyone who considers themselves a part of that collection of customs and ideas to be well-versed in the whole story of our people, not just that of the oppressive white males of the past.

* Hard to call this a subculture, because of its unique position: it exerts a powerful influence on mainstream culture shared by all races and creeds.
† This comes from A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn, a survey of American history through the eyes of the downtrodden and persecuted.
‡ From John Little, a former slave.
†† The post-slavery cultural clashes between whites and blacks in America have nothing to do with biology – the truth is members of each group have been raised differently only because their ancestors where treated differently because of race. It is now almost entirely because humans are more perceptive to social differences. For example, I consider you inferior because you don’t think like an American, and vice versa.
**  I was a pushover and could not hold my ground when bullied. Luckily my coworkers were all good people and once they saw me standing up for myself regardless of the confrontation, they accepted me, weird white guy from the midwest that I was. They pushed me through taunts and insults.
‡‡ Well, at one time he had two articles about the movie. I can only find one now. I will update this if I receive a clarification.
§§ From the song “Nobody“.
§ The story of Native Americans is another neglected history, but not in the scope of this article.

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