Sunday, March 2, 2008

Separate Unequal

So, Black History Month is over - thank goodness. I find all the talk of BHM tiring. Maybe that's because for me, working in advertising, talk of it starts in October or November, sometimes as early as August.

This year the validity of BHM, from a number of different perspectives, has been prevalent. Even many advertisers, who are generally pretty clueless, have come to recognize that dragging out the "African" patterns (just how authentic are some of those patterns anyway) and the standard historical figures just does not resonate with Black consumers. In the world of Black bloggers, there's been much conversation about whether or not Black History Month is necessary or valid. Even Nickelodeon's Nick News had a segment called, "Do We Need Black History Month?"

Many argue that Black history IS American history and should be treated as such and not separated out. Others lament the fact that Black History Month is the shortest month of the year.

Some people insist that it is necessary because we still live in a society that doesn't recognize the contributions of Black people to American history - so we need at least these few days to acknowledge, learn about and honor the historical contributions of Black Americans.

I think, until very recently, I fell into this last category. I believed that, yes, Black history is American history - but because so often it's not included - that there needs to be some time and place set aside for it.

But recently, I have had a slight shift in attitude - a new perspective has opened up for me - and I think I blame it on Barack Obama.

These days I'm thinking that Black folks (and let's not get into a discussion just yet about just who Black folks are or what we should call ourselves) have been doing ourselves a great disservice by labeling everything thing we do as "Black."

Now I know where it comes from. We looked around and saw that our faces weren't showing up in the movies or commercials or magazines or history books or works of fiction or theatrical plays - and so we came up with Black movies, Black advertising, Black magazines, Black history, Black novels, Black theater and on and on. And I'm sure that at the time this made sense. Hell, like I said, it made sense to me until very recently. After all, I've spent my career working in Black advertising agencies.

The logic has been that of course we both want and need to see ourselves reflected in entertainment, historical and informational arenas. And also, that yes, there are some experiences that are relatively exclusive to many segments of Black culture. And if the standard, "mainstream," "general market" outlets were not acknowledging us - then of course we should create our own ways of acknowledging ourselves.

However, what it seems to me has happened is that we've created exactly the circumstances that were fought against in Brown vs Board of Education - a system of entertainment, historical and informational arenas that are Separate and Unequal.

Time and time again, when I look at the Black counterparts of "mainstream" venues - they are less well funded, understaffed, incapable of nurturing and developing talent, or otherwise struggling.

And here comes Obama - who is not the "Black" candidate - but a Black man who is an American candidate. And no matter how many times the opposition tries to pigeon-hole him as Black - he reiterates the eternal truth that he is American, and that if his ethnicity shapes him in some way - it is not a way that separates him from other Americans but rather it connects him with other Americans, because his ethnic background gives him the ability to understand at least a little bit of what everyone in this country lives with and experiences.

And that is, to me, one of the beautiful things about being Black in this country. It puts you in a position of being able to identify with and understand all kinds of struggles and hardships as well as triumphs and accomplishments. The inherent lack of privilege not only makes for experiences that are empathetic to those of other groups - but it also creates keen observers of those with privilege. I have frequently said that I would never want to be reincarnated into the body of a White man because, despite the benefits of privilege, the one side effect of it is that you don't have to be aware of anyone else - and it would be a shame to miss out on knowing about, caring about, and empathizing with so very many different kinds of people.

One of the things that strikes me so much about the beginning of Bliss Broyard's book, "One Drop," is the change of perspective she goes through when she discovers that her father was Black. She suddenly becomes aware of so many things from her own prejudices to the implications of the actions of her friends and neighbors. And she suddenly CARES about the thoughts and feelings of those whom - when she was merely a privileged person - she never even thought about.

This kind of unique perspective is something that Black people have the ability to share - not just with each other - but with everyone else as well. We could, if we choose to, shine a light on so much - both historical and current - infusing these things with layers of dimension that could make so much come to life.

It's like looking at something 3-D without the right glasses. If you sat there with just blue over one eye and nothing over the other it would look all crazy. Sure you could make it out - but it would look flat with fuzzy lines around the edges. Same thing if you held up the red to one eye with nothing in front of the other. But when you bring the two colors together - the picture jumps right off the screen with all kinds of dimensions you never even considered.

Learning Black History separate from the rest of history - diminishes both. It takes putting them together to not only get the whole picture - but to get a better - clearer more enlightened and dimensional picture.

And, the reality is that I think it's up to Black people to make that happen - not just with history, but with advertising and magazines and movies and all the rest. We can sit around feeling bad that we are not included in "mainstream" venues - but rather than creating separate ones that are just for us - what would happen if we created outlets that were truly mainstream?

Rather than segregating ourselves - we need to be setting the standard. Teaching American history that includes everyone. Making commercials and TV shows and movies and books that show the ways we really interact - that give insights to our similarities and the ways in which we connect with each other - rather than separating us out as different and apart and less than.

And that is another aspect of our continued, self-imposed segregation that bothers me. Too often we acknowledge ourselves as the victim or in some other diminished capacity. I believe that if we were to claim our place as a part of the general market - and to begin to shed light on all the things we touch as part of the whole rather than as a separate part - then we will begin to look more at our contributions than at the slights against us. In fact - we will not just be talking about our contributions - we will be shaping the present and future and redefining the past in ways that will bring more light to our accomplishmentsand contributions than to our victimization or exclusion.

We will become the real mainstream, the authentic general market. When newspapers exclude news that pertains to Black people - our papers will put all the stories that pertain to all Americans side by side. When young women go missing - all their stories will be told - not just the stories of blonde-haired, blue-eyed young women that are in papers today, or just brown-skinned, brown-eyed young women that are shown on some Black blogs - but all the young women, brown and blonde and tan. We won't lament the lack of anything other than a European standard of beauty on fashion runways, and we won't hold our own fashion shows ignored by the big designers. Because when the designers recognize that the people are getting fashion shows that reflect everyone - then they will join in the real celebrations of beauty - and on and on - in film and fiction, in news and history. If the creations of Black people become about inclusion rather than segregation - we will all - all Americans of every ethnicity - shine and that will really make history.


Yolanda said...

I saw Bliss on the PBS African American Lives documentary. Fascinating story of her father, her book sounds like an interesting read.

My perspective of Black History Month has been different this year especially with the living history of Barack Obama. Personally the years of weight from carrying around the shackles of worry about what other races think and concerns of prejudice have somehow managed to melt away. No I'm not ignorant enough to believe that racism doesn't exist but this new hope makes me realize I don't have to let the worry about it seep into every facet of every part of my day.

This is the most liberating hope I've ever experienced and I can't wait to see what levels it will elevate to as he stands as our President!

The Bear Maiden said...

Hey, Chickie. I hadn't commented here before cuz uh, this sparked a long rambling of my own. Very succinct, you are.