Black history is not just for Black people. Just as the world is not painted in “50 Shades of Grey,” and America is a melting pot of flavors, those aspiring to be well-cultured put on their technicolor glasses, step outside their comfort box, and expose themselves to something they may not already know.
That’s why my first reaction to the HuffPo article titled, “50 Books That Every African American Should Read,” was one of doubt and frustration. The article, ironically posted on Independence Day, is a rather extensive book list with well-known, and some not-so-known titles by Black authors from America and abroad. Fiction, non-fiction, poetry, science-fiction and autobiography. Among the authors: Toni Morrison, Ralph Ellison, Assata Shakur, Edwidge Dandicat, Barack Obama. The list was impressive. The question mark, for me, punctuated a long-standing idea that only African Americans should be educated on African American things.
Two hundred and thirty six years removed from the United States independence from Great Britain, the country reflects on its history, one built on the backs of slaves and sewn together with contributions from every race. And still, this title.
I was baffled as a 16 year old kid in high school sitting with my guidance counselor, choosing electives for the following year. I had a myriad of choices. Music, cooking, computer economics, psychology 101, the Black Experience… The Black Experience??? My counselor, Mrs. Sexton, told me it was a Black history class that covered the Middle Passage, slavery, the Great Migration and the Civil Rights Movement.
“But isn’t this a part of the required subject of American History for all students, Mrs. Sexton?”
She explained that the subject was much too rich to be contained within another class. I agreed. But why is it an elective? Why give teens in their prime stage of learning before entering adulthood, the option to know or not to know how their country was built? It should be as fundamental to education as reading, writing, and arithmetic. Not Black history. But history, an all-encompassing subject that embodies the experiences of every race group.
The key to understanding ourselves and each other is education. Perhaps, with education will come a tolerance for cultures that differ from our own. Prejudice and racism, even the subtle kind, is hinged on a lack of knowledge, and like the familiar adage says, the people perish for lack of knowledge.
For non-Blacks underexposed to Black culture, last year’s blockbuster “The Help” was their first look at the lives of Black families in the 1950’s, despite the numerous films that have documented such a topic, but never gained the attention of the Academy, The Golden Globes, or mainstream critics. Non-Blacks never immersed in social circles outside of their own culture have a difficult time naming five Black actresses. The tragedy is not so much that they don’t know, but moreso that they don’t know, that they don’t know.
CNN aimed to educate the masses with the Soledad O’Brien-hosted documentary series “Black In America,” which has examined the lives of Black families in America since 2008. Despite harsh criticism noting inaccuracies, the program pushed Black thought, Black dilemmas, Black history to the forefront and did so on mainstream television. CNN is among the world’s leaders in news and information and has a reach that BET, TVOne, and Centric do not. Publications and networks that serve the African American community are needed but unfortunately, much of the important information they present stays within the walls of the community.
While African Americans can always gain a bit of knowledge about our own culture from programs such as “Black In America,” the real benefit comes to those who don’t share our culture or experiences, positive or negative. See, Black people, by definition, already know what it means to be Black in America. Many of us have heard our mothers and grandmothers share stories of our history. Many of us have, in fact, elected to take the class on Black History, the African Diaspora, Black film, Black beauty, etc. We’ve chosen to tune into BET and TVOne. We’ve taken pictures at the Blacks in Wax Museum and we’ve read many of the books on The Huffington Post’s list.
We’ve inundated ourselves with Black authors. The list fails to recognize that those titles are “Should Reads” for every race group accept African Americans, so the publication has two choices. Title the list, “50 Books That Everyone Should Read”, or leave the title unchanged, and include books by authors of every race, color, and creed that offer a look at some facet of life African Americans may have yet to consider.
On the brink of another presidential election, despite our efforts to sever the color barrier, America is still plagued with racist thought. The idea that the closer you are to White, the closer you are to right.
I’m talking about the people who deem our President incompetent simply because he’s Black even if they don’t say that out loud. I’m talking about African Americans in corporate America encouraged to cut off their dreadlocks because it’s not “professional.” I’m talking about the students at the prestigious Columbia University reluctant to admit they live in Harlem. I’m talking about all of the news articles about Chris Brown and Lyfe Jennings and R. Kelly that incorrectly refer to them as rappers. It’s an erroneous suggestion that all young Black men in the music industry must be rappers. I’m talking about that infamous L’Oreal ad where Beyoncé was barely recognizable once they lightened her skin and sculpted her nose. It’s the kind of racism that fails to accept the cultural differences between races as just as good, just as fly, just as beautiful as any other. We are different, yes. The fight of the Civil Rights Movement, Affirmative Action, and the like was not a fight to be like Whites. It was a fight to encourage the country to acknowledge and embrace our differences as equal. What a boring place America would be if we all looked the same, and dressed the same, and shared the same history.
The people perish for lack of knowledge.
Herina Ayot is a freelance writer living in Jersey City, NJ. She is currently writing a novel based loosely on her own life, “The Content of Things Undone.” Follow her on Twitter @ReeExperience.