We got it so wrong with Black History Month, first, by making it a token “thing” rather than a radical re-writing of a subject called History. And secondly, by emphasizing this black person’s contribution and that black person’s contribution. Having being written out of the history books, it felt necessary to highlight the “Hidden Figures” to whom we owe so much. But beyond perhaps some black kids feeling a new sense of pride and a few white folks maybe thinking “Wow. I never knew that!”, what really changes? The answer, seems clear: Nothing. Or at best, not enough.
The issues lie so much deeper and require so much more. And perhaps the most important is for white folks to reflect on why history as taught in schools and discussed in our national discourse is the way it is. Learning a few things about the black contribution misses the mark in understanding what we really need to move forward. As Ijeomo Uluo said, “I don’t want you to understand me better— I want you to understand yourselves.”
And so at the end of these twelve Jazz Stories, a few thoughts:
• It isn’t enough to learn about the contributions from black people that are left out of the history books. But we do need to know them, we need to know who to thank and then we need to thank them.
• It isn’t enough to be uplifted by the music/ poetry/ art/ dance/ theater that black artists created. But if we are, then we need to know their stories and the dues they paid to bring us such beauty, joy and pleasure. And on behalf of white folks everywhere, we again should thank them for their Herculean efforts to break through all the limitations we threw in their way and apologize for it all.
• It isn’t enough to marvel at the extraordinary physical, moral and intellectual accomplishments of black athletes, artists, political activists, spiritual leaders. But while we should, we should see it all as a complete rebuttal to the illusion of White Supremacy and get to work improving our own intelligences inspired by their examples.
• It isn’t enough to be inspired by the many ways presented in these Jazz Stories that one can begin to commit to needed change, sometimes through committed social action, sometimes by telling the needed stories through one’s art, sometimes simply by being one’s own beautiful and authentic self. But if we find ourselves inspired, then the best response is simply to get to work.
• It isn’t enough feel shamed and guilty (though a little of both is always appropriate), but to understand that inventing, teaching, passing down and feeding the centuries-old narrative of White Supremacy has hurt us all. Black folks a thousand times more than whites, but white folks taught to hate, given permission to ignore unearned privilege, privileged to choose whether to think about these issues or not, excluded from the possibilities of friendships and working relationships with black folks because of blind belief in the doctrine, are also hurt by its perpetuation.
• Seeing the consistency of the White Supremacist thread in each of these 12 stories, understanding more clearly how it works so that we can recognize it and refuse it drawing the line and proclaiming “This is where it stops.”— this gets closer to the heart of the matter. And it’s still not enough! Even those who have begun the work will always find themselves sliding back into the lies they were told at a child, will be blind to some of their unearned privileges, will find themselves resisting the next thing they have to consider.
But of all these reasons for Black History Month, it’s the one that feels the most important. Recognizing how we’re all trapped in a narrative that purposefully damages and swings its heavy sword of power is perhaps the most important change-making step we can make. It’s the willfully blind or unconscious acceptance of this narrative that makes police with the knees on the neck, Capitol terrorists storming in with the Confederate flag, bystanders just going on with their day as if these things don’t concern them, feel justified and even righteous in the face of their odious actions and non-actions. It’s the story that is carried as a heavy shield against the duty of Christians to practice the Christianity they profess, Americans to be responsible citizens, people to be decent human beings. The story was invented to help slave-owners sleep peacefully at night on the soft pillow of their Southern “honor” and is still being used for the same. Without it, people would have to face themselves and get to work.
But wouldn’t we all be the happier for it? Shall we begin?