As a kid in elementary school, I learned the PG version of an awful part of America’s history every February. In library class, we would be encouraged to borrow the illustrated biographies of people who seemed like they were fiction to me. Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, they all seemed so larger-than-life. To me, this was just a part of school. We learned about black historical figures just as we would learn about George Washington or Johnny Appleseed: as American icons with a bit of hyperbole surrounding them and a bit of hiding the parts that were not suitable for children. I never thought it was an injustice that different banners and murals would decorate my elementary school every February.
So you can imagine that I was taken aback the first time I ever heard the idea of someone wanting a White History Month. This made sense to me, as a kid. We had a Black History Month so sure, let’s have a White History Month. Let’s learn about all the white people, too. I did not quite have the ability to rationalize yet so I didn’t understand that every other month was White History Month. On Martin Luther King Day and for the month of February, we would learn about the black struggle in America, a story that is as American as the story of the country itself. But for the rest of the year, we would learn about how Christopher Columbus was a national hero and how George Washington chopped down a cherry tree and it all sounded quite nice. What a lovely story for our country.
But when I got older, the truth started to infiltrate and a disillusionment began to grow in me. Now, I know that to have a White History Month would be equivalent to ignoring the importance and the neglect that permeates black culture and history in our country. It’s the same thing as the All Lives Matter movement. Yes, all lives matter, but you’re missing the point.
So it’s important to remember the fact that three of my new heroes, Trey Flowers, Dont’a Hightower, and James White, (I had to connect this to the unbelievable Super Bowl LI) were not always welcome in this country. And it’s important to reflect on that and empathize with the past and future of black America so nothing like that will ever happen again and we create a better country for all of us.
It is no secret that I am white. I love La La Land and I love those small Pillsbury cookies that come out every Halloween with the tiny jack-o-lanterns on them and I also love Epcot. However, because I am white, I cannot even begin to empathize with what it is like to be a black person in this country, regardless of the era, which is why I do not want to speak to it too much and I simply want to celebrate Black History Month and all the good it does for all of us. The best I can do is exercise my sentiments of love and brotherhood and sisterhood for my fellow human beings because we are bound by our humanity. And this goes for everyone. Even Mike Pence.
I know what you’re thinking. Whoa! This is a Black History Month piece and you’re talking about empathy for the whitest vice president since whoever James Buchanan’s veep was? Hear me out. (And, please, call me out on this if you think it is misguided. I’m doing my best to learn, too.) Vice President Pence got himself into a bit of hot water when, to acknowledge Black History Month, he tweeted, “As #BlackHistoryMonth begins, we remember when Pres. Lincoln submitted the 13th Amendment, ending slavery, to the states #NationalFreedomDay.”
Now, I know what you’re thinking again. Whoa! Mike Pence just honored a white man when tweeting about Black History Month. This is true. Mike Pence did make a mistake. But I think it would be a mistake to just rip him apart immediately, without even sparing a second for empathy. Yes, he messed up. Yes, the tweet was pretty tasteless. But he’s trying. He’s putting forth an effort. He’s not an ideal person and I disagree with him at seemingly every turn, but he’s putting an effort forward. Just like when he attended a showing of Hamilton, he’s trying. He’s reaching out. Maybe he’s making an attempt at empathy? And if we have to do our best to empathize with the “historically disenfranchised,” as Dave Chappelle put it on Saturday Night Live, then we have to do our best to empathize with those who may not see eye to eye with us, too. Our country is as much about our similarities as it is our differences. That includes Mike Pence.
It reminds me, too, of Harper Lee’s great American novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. You would be hard pressed to find someone who thinks that Atticus Finch is not one of the most perfect role models in all of literature. He practices what he preaches and what he preaches is moral gold. At one point he tells his daughter, Scout, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Atticus understands empathy and that is why there is absolutely no surprise when he takes on a case (that is a guaranteed loss) to represent Tom Robinson, a black man falsely accused of rape by a white woman. Atticus Finch is synonymous with kindness towards his fellow man. And this applies to bigots just as much as it applies to wrongly criminalized black men.
After Atticus takes the case, Mrs. Dubose, a neighbor of the Finches, confronts Scout and Jem and directly refers to their father as a “nigger-lover.” This causes Jem to destroy her bushes and later be punished by Atticus in the form of having to read to Mrs. Dubose every day. Initially, he despises it, but eventually he comes to tolerate it, mostly because Mrs. Dubose does not engage with the children after a while. Later, after Mrs. Dubose dies, Atticus informs Jem that she knew she was dying and her one wish was to defeat her morphine addiction before she died. Having Jem read to her helped distract her enough that she succeeded in this task. Despite being faced with such horrid vitriol from Mrs. Dubose, Atticus still knew in his heart that he had to look past that and empathize with Mrs. Dubose’s shared humanity, even going so far as to commend her bravery and tell Jem, “I wanted you to see something about her — I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand.” By knowing Mrs. Dubose as a human being, Jem understood that attacking her bushes is a poor way to express frustration and disagreement with someone.
There are a lot of people who support Donald Trump and his administration despite the obvious flaws. Undoubtedly, it would be wrong to ignore them and the issues they care about. If any are reading this at all, they won’t like this sentiment, though. Hillary Clinton was right about something. Bear with me. Hillary Clinton was also wrong about something. She said that half of Trump’s supporters could be placed into a metaphorical “basket of deplorables.” Secretary Clinton was right that some of Trump’s fans are deplorable, but she was wrong that half of them are. It’s much smaller.
There is no secret that Trump was endorsed by the KKK and white supremacists and neo-Nazis and these are all groups that are quite antithetical to the ideals of Black History Month, to say the least. But this is not half of his supporters at all. These are the people who are beyond any of our help. But there are others who cannot be dismissed. They cannot be ignored. We all must extend empathy to one another and we need to see the viewpoints of one another. These are the lessons taught to us by Harper Lee and also by Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King and Frederick Douglass (still kicking, apparently!) and Harriet Tubman and Barack Obama and the list is as close to infinite as you can get. I believe that things are going to get a lot worse before they get better. But I also believe that empathy is the only way through that. It’s the only way forward. There are sixteen days left in February, but let’s keep the feelings of goodwill around all year.
Next week: The National Endowment for the Arts, responsibility, and Saturday Night Live’s Kristen Stewart and Alec Baldwin episodes.