THE Lesson of Black History Month 2019

Lewis Howard Latimer, American inventor, son of a former slave, U.S. Navy veteran.

It is amazing, that even as adults we continue to learn.  Last week, two Cobb County parents, Diane and Peter Richey made a great choice.  When the Richey’s Clarksdale Elementary School second grader received her black history project, they used their adult brains to yield before they did something that may have been disrespectful.

The well-meaning school project asked the children to select an important person in black history and dress up like them.  Both of my children did a similar project that was called a “Living Wax Museum.”  The rubric required that the children conduct research, complete a display, and prepare an oral presentation.  On presentation day, the parents were invited to walk through the living wax museum and press a fake button to hear the children pretending to be the famous African Americans.  “I am Louis Latimer.  I was the creator of the filament which made the light bulb work.  Although Thomas Edison got the credit.”  Was my son’s repetitive phrase.  I authored the last sentence!

However, my son is an African American child, therefore it did not occur to me that another well-intentioned parent could completely mess this fun project up for everyone.  If you have been living under a rock or deliberately tuning out anything related to race, the State of Virginia has been embroiled with controversy because the Governor and other white-male elected officials sported “black face” at some point in their lives.  Since then America has been debating what was appropriate in the 80’s and what is appropriate now when it comes to culture faux pas.   

The Atlanta Black Crackers were a professional Negro league baseball team which played during the early-to-mid-20th century. 
They were named after the local white league team, the Atlanta Crackers, of the Class A Southern Association.

Peter Richey of Cobb said very succinctly, “You don’t dress up as another race.  That seems to be something we’ve universally agreed on lately.”  Yes Peter, we have agreed.  Thanks for grasping the pretty clear lesson that cultures are not costumes or for our entertainment.  Particularly if as a part of American history our government willfully abused, killed, raped, maimed and stole from that culture.  I’m looking at you tomahawk chopping Cobb County Braves! 

However, entertainment and education are a bit different.  Dressing up as Harriett Tubman or George Washington Carver is okay – without the need to darken your skin to make the point.  Just as dressing up as Abraham Lincoln would not require a black student to slather white powder on their face to give the same acknowledgment.  However, note an important difference between those two examples.  There was not a time in American history where black people put on white makeup to make fun of the white race while simultaneously benefiting from years of slavery, segregation and discrimination. 

I appreciate the school’s attempt to include black history in its curriculum.  Yet I also I appreciate the Richey’s for pumping the breaks and being public about it.  Although the Richey’s may have been smart enough not to send their child to school with makeup that darkens their skin, we can see from Megan Kelly’s $69 million-dollar settlement that not everyone gets it. 

Some have a hard time comprehending that there are symbols, words, and actions that have negative connotations so deeply rooted in American culture that they will forever be inappropriate to use.  Anyone’s willful association with those symbols, words or actions creates well-earned inferences and presumptions.

Privilege is believing YOU must agree that an action or statement is offensive before you can respect others by avoiding those offensive actions or statements.  

I learned for the first time while in law school that the term “oriental” was inappropriate and not preferred by those of Asian descent.  Having grown up in an environment where I was ignorant to Asian culture and history, I didn’t know until someone told me.  However, when I learned …. that was it.  The word was removed from my vocabulary and I never had a need from that moment forward to use the word “oriental” in reference to anything other than a rug.  Simple!

Rather than becoming irritated at those who despise the word, I became annoyed that I had not received that lesson earlier in life.  I didn’t need to know or understand the history to stop using the word.  I had no need to agree with whether or not the word was offensive to give my best effort to be respectful to other human beings.  I did not use the excuse, “it was something I grew up saying.”  I also did not take one person’s opinion that they personally were not offended by use of the word as justification for me to use a word that I knew was offensive to others.

Culturally, there are words we remove from American vernacular regularly.  The word “retarded” is now socially unacceptable.  In the 80’s it was a medically acceptable and professional word.  Now, I cringe when people don’t know that we don’t use that word anymore.  It is a privilege to live in country where we have the luxury to make these changes so that we can respect one another. 

I know, sometimes it can get confusing.  Culturally appropriate things change, and it may be hard to keep up with.   We are only a little more than 2 years away from legal gay marriage, a little more than 50 years away from Jim Crow, and a little more than 240 years from the founding of our country.  Yet somehow, I know that if you have time to read this post — you have time to have a common level of respect. 

And, when you get it wrong, as humans do, apologize sincerely and never do it again.  Simple American principle – “When you know better, you do better.” Maya Angelou.  And if you are around others making the same mistake, don’t ignore it, laugh at it, or condone it.  Tell them so they too can do better.  #BeBest

Maya Angelou was an American poet, singer, memoirist, and civil rights activist. She published seven autobiographies, three books of essays, several books of poetry, and is credited with a list of plays, movies, and television shows spanning over 50 years

There are other people however who are preparing to type or are saying to themselves, “this is America, we have the 1st Amendment freedom of speech.”  Yes, you do.  But remember …  that the 1st Amendment may let you say what you want without being infringed by the government.  However, the Bill of Rights does not prevent you from being considered a jerk that no one likes.  Nor does it prevent you from a butt kicking, getting fired, or losing your reputation in the community.   If common respect for others is a lesson that is too hard to grasp, at least remember the last part as THE lesson of the 2019 Black History Month!


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