Tuesday, February 2, 2016

BLACK HISTORY MONTH: What does a wrench have to do with it?

Okay, so here's the deal. One of the things about being white is that every year there's this thing called Black History Month. As a white man no one has ever told me what I'm supposed to do during this month. What generally happened each year growing up was a lesson or two in school about George Washington Carver and all the wonderful things he did with peanuts. Then throughout the month I would hear a few juvenile white folks grumble about not having a "White History Month" and not seeing the big deal about the achievements and contributions of African Americans. My black friends didn't say much at all about the month. I guess because it would have been kind of awkward. Or maybe it was embarrassing because all anyone seemed to know about Black contributions to society was the many uses of peanuts.

So now that I'm tentatively acknowledging that I am indeed a "grown up" I'm realizing that I don't have to let anyone else dictate what I do for Black History Month. It is completely up to me to decide. I recently randomly came across a short documentary on Bessie Coleman on the Smithsonian Channel. She was the first Black (and Native American) female to get her pilot's license. I found her story surprising, inspiring and just plain cool. And instead of thinking about the social ramifications of race and all that, I simply felt...proud. Yes, that's right, I'm proud of Bessie Coleman. What right do I, a white man, have to feel proud about Bessie Coleman, a black woman who died 90 years ago? Well, she's an American, for one thing! And furthermore she's a human being, and what do you know I am too! We have a lot in common. We both have faced the struggles that are common to all people. We both have asked ourselves, "What can I do with my life?" She stands as an example of the American spirit. She was an innovator with courage, gumption and creativity. That is a legacy that I want to be a part of.

Well, this feeling of pride melted into a feeling that is hard to explain. I felt like I had walked into a room where I'm not allowed. Was it right for me to horn in on African American legacy and claim it as my own? What foolishness! Somewhere along the way I bought into a lie perpetuated by who-knows-who (perhaps no one in particular) that we live in a separated society. The lie says that what's theirs is theirs and whats ours is ours. Perhaps the very celebration of Black History Month made me believe the lie. I believe that Black History Month is actually a good corrective to a great evil in our society. It reminds us to look back at our stories and remember that there were people who went unnoticed in their own time BECAUSE they were a minority. It reminds us that there have always been people willing to look past their current situation and rise above their expected lot in life. Those stories should inspire all of us. The danger comes when White folks think of it at "their" history month, and when Black folks think of it as "our" history month. The history belongs to all of us. It is ours to claim or to be ignorant of. I'm suggesting that ALL of us can take pride in the accomplishments and contributions of ALL of those who went before us? I think it would be much more fun. So if you are interested, check back here this month. I'll be posting things I come across that elucidate the contributions of some people you might never have heard of before.

For today, I highly recommend the Smithsonian documentary linked above. Or you could go read the Wikipedia entry. If nothing else, you should read about her tragic death. It is quite shocking. SHOCKING I tell you. I won't spoil it, but I will warn you that it is, of course, a sad ending and a wrench plays a major role.