Whose Black History Month is it anyway?2018-02-17
It’s Black History Month! And though I shouldn’t necessarily be thrilled by the fact that I’m “allowed” to celebrate my culture for about 28 days of the year, I can’t help but revel in it. I mean, I can unabashedly share information about how people who look like me have contributed to their societies in exciting and significant ways. I get to fight back against stereotypes that cast Black Americans as lazy, criminal, violent, and unintelligent by highlighting Black inventors, artists, politicians, doctors, judges, professors, and activists who have made indelible marks on American history. While respect for people of color should not be based solely upon their success as define by hegemonic standards, for 28 days, I get to revel in my #BlackGirlMagic while at the same time venting over historical and contemporary oppressions that plague Black communities… and not one person calls me a “reverse racist”. Well, maybe only one or two.
For me this has always been a special time. You see, my family never missed an opportunity to teach me about the glory of people with African descent. They were so invested in me learning about my culture that my first ever educational experience was at an African American private school where lessons were taught not only in English and French, but also in Swahili (shout out to Shule Ya Taifa). We celebrated Christmas and Kwanzaa. I didn’t take ballet classes, I took West African Dance and performed in West Indian Day Caribbean parades since I was old enough to bust a wine. My African American and West Indian roots made me the embodiment of the African diaspora. I easily made connections with Black people from all over the world. And when I moved to Spain and was re-ethnicized as a Dominican, it wasn’t hard to connect with my new community. With our love of plantains and drum beats– how could I not feel the connection?
It wasn’t until years later as an educator in Brooklyn high school that I realized how many people had been robbed of any significant education regarding Black history. I also learned that racial and ethnic categories more often served to create distinctions over connections, even in groups with similar skin tones (not surprising since race is a social construct anyway). So, when I began working at a school in Brooklyn that I affectionately referred to as La Hispaniola, owing to fact that the majority of the students had Dominican or Haitian roots, I was so excited to celebrate Black History Month. It had been a long time since I had worked in a school with a population of predominantly students of color. The school had only been open for two years when I started and I was told that the Black History Month celebration was the biggest school event. On the last Friday of February, students would celebrate Black history through poetry, dance, song, and an amazing fashion show. I enthusiastically volunteered to help with preparations and was there to do hair and makeup for the fashion show.
After two years of volunteering behind the scenes, I noticed two things. One, the students were celebrating their culture through art, but Black history was still lacking in the school curriculum. Two, there was a clear divide on who performed; students of African descent from Spanish speaking countries were completely left out. Many of these students didn’t even show up to the event. By my fourth year at the school, I was asked to take over the planning and execution of the show and I vowed to remedy those issues. First, all students would be learning something by attending the Black History Month show – even if it was only to learn how Black History Month came to be in the first place. And secondly, we would celebrate all people of African descent. Seems easy enough, right? Well, no- It was not easy.
Less than two weeks into planning the event, I was breaking up a screaming match between the Dominican Bachata group (DBG) and the West Indian dance crew (WIDC). An argument over rehearsal space quickly evolved into one of who more authentically deserved to be involved in the first place. After hearing shouting coming from the auditorium, I entered to see what’s going on. There was one teacher in the room trying to calm the girls down, but the debate was heated. Both groups declared that they had the stage reserved for their rehearsal. While the DBG had a faculty chaperone there, the WIDC did not. After asking them where their faculty advisor was and informing them that they would not be able to have rehearsal without adult supervision, the leader of the WIDC turned to her group members and said, “well you know Ms. Clemons Spanish anyways, so we shoulda known she was going to take their side. I don’t even know why they are here. It is BLACK history, not SPANISH history month, right!”
At this point I was shocked. First of all, she has just insulted my ability to do my job. Second, she had assigned me an entirely new race and excluded both me and the other students from the celebration, during my favorite month of the year! A simple scheduling mishap had turned to an ideological battle where race and language had been conflated and Afro-Latino didn’t even exist! To Natasha, the Dominican girls were not Black enough to participate at all. In her mind, the mere fact that they spoke Spanish completely erased any connection to their African descent. Further, my Spanish knowledge rendered me incapable of making any kind of partial decision. But how could I teach a complete history of colonialism and its effects in an instant?
At this point I said, “Well Tanya (a Haitian) speaks Creole and French and she is part of your dance crew. How come she gets to be black and we don’t?” Natasha’s face went from momentary confusion to full understanding. In that moment I knew that I had succeeded in teaching at least one lesson: Speaking a different language (a colonial one at that), does not take away from one’s African ancestry. Black history is diasporic and we all deserve to celebrate. So for the descendants of Africa and all those with whom we cross paths, Happy Black History Month!