Why does Black History Month offend you?
No one is forcing you to celebrate BHM, so stop complaining about it.
“Why is it a month long? That’s just excessive,” she said, flipping her hair and turning back to her computer.
I closed my eyes, sitting at my desk across from this white lady and begging my ears to not let this Black History Month snipe travel to my brain. It didn’t work. My ears were tattletales. My hands started shaking. I just couldn’t believe that this woman had the audacity to yell this out for not only me to hear but for a couple of black folks in the next pod to overhear.
I swiveled in my chair, patiently trying to explain to her the significance of Carter G. Woodson. Instead she zeroed in on Negro History Week and said, “A week is fine. It should’ve been left at that.”
I gritted my teeth, stared at her and wondered how much I could say without getting termination papers. I finally settled on, “This conversation is over,” put my headphones on and tried unsuccessfully to go back to editing. Twenty-four hours later, I was still furious. We ended up in Human Resources. She learned the lesson the hard way.
This wasn’t the first time I’d faced this kind of repugnance about African-American history or literature. In undergrad, a professor was irate that I spoke to the dean about paying for a course that had “Harlem Renaissance” in the description but ignoring black writers entirely. Her response was to send me a lengthy email telling me it was her “prerogative” to teach what she wanted. She then assigned the class — all white students minus me — to read “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” aloud. If you know anything about Mark Twain, then you know how often the word “nigger” was used in that book. One white guy repeatedly volunteered to read while the rest of the class avoided all eye contact and stared at the ceiling instead. Every time he said the word “nigger” aloud, I stared at her.
She later failed me on my final with no explanation (dropping my grade from an “A” to a “C+”), and the dean refused to meet with me again. Even after graduating from another school, I wasn’t done with her yet. My first paid piece was a magazine story written about my experience with her. I emailed a copy of it to her and told her (something to the effect of), “Thank you for failing me — and for the paycheck too!”
This time around, I just didn’t feel like fighting. Undergrad had left me mentally exhausted. If anything, I wanted peace. At my first editing job since graduating, I was simply trying to earn a paycheck and mind my business. There was absolutely no reason to even critique Black History Month. If my co-worker didn’t want to celebrate it, by all means, don’t. My head was still left spinning, wondering, “How did we get here?”
The rebelliousness of acknowledging a 28-day month (purposely to pay homage to Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass’ birthdays so please spare me the “shortest month of the year” complaints) took me back to my rivalry with the English professor. The American school system pays homage to white writers, white historians, white murderers (looking at you, Christopher Columbus), white artists and white scientists in order to earn a diploma and a degree. Every other ethnic group and/or culture is an “Elective.” So is this one month of celebration too much to ask? No. It’s. Not.
I wish I could say this was an isolated incident. But wait, there’s more. We’d already had a company-wide layoff at this job, but another co-worker friend and I talked our team into having a company-wide Black History Month Party. While I was relieved Ms. Excessive had found a new job and left by that time, another guy (also white) loudly announced how he wouldn’t celebrate that party. A friend of his loudly laughed, saying she was only going because “the food is gonna be good.” (She wasn’t wrong about the latter half, but I digress.)
In a perfect world, I could just blame that one job. Not so much.
Exhibit C: I had a boss who was irate about me correcting an edit on the number of people that Harriet Tubman rescued in a K-12 book. He terminated my temp contract on the spot because I wouldn’t lower the number in the textbook.
Exhibit D: There was a co-worker at a third job who was annoyed to find out Harriet Tubman’s face would be printed on a $20 bill. His response, “Who cares about her anyway?”
Exhibit E: There was a boss at a fifth job who wanted me to take down a review of the MLK monument in Washington D.C. on Inauguration Day 2013 and replace the travel feature story with an alligator attack. Why? Because he felt the homepage was “oversaturated with Obama/MLK stuff.” Oversaturated — for the first black president in U.S. history having Inauguration Day on MLK Day. And he said this while drinking out of a St. Patrick’s Day mug.
These are the kinds of situations that I ran into throughout two decades of working in Corporate America before I finally threw in the towel at the last job. Years later, I still don’t quite understand the hostility about Black History Month. While an entire population is entitled enough to believe that there are no black leaders besides Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (who always gets his paragraph in history books) nor is African-American History or Literature required in schools, what is your issue with others learning and acknowledging their own history?
It’s the kind of late-to-the-party logic that declares it doesn’t have a “racist bone in my body,” has “black friends” and “doesn’t see color,” but goes above and beyond to make sure to never ever know much about black culture — outside of hip-hop once Eminem hit the scene.
While it is certainly your right and privilege to know nothing about anyone who doesn’t look like you, it’s also OK to have a piping hot mug of STFU when others want to acknowledge their own skinfolk. Grab your favorite ceramic mug and a Sharpie. Write your name on the side, cafe style. Steam your water or almond milk. Pour the combination in a mug. And sip away. If you burn your tongue, that’s OK, too. There will be other months when the STFU mug will need a refill.
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