Yes, I could have named this B is for Black Histories but I resist convention.
I recently came across Dr. Trenita Brookshire Childer’s work on the experience of black motherhood from an academic perspective. Particularly compelling was her explicit analysis of who owns the womb of black women. Historically, enslaved Black women literally did not own their wombs – their slavers did, and today American Black women struggle to create their own boundaries around child-birth and child rearing in professional spaces. She refers to the phenomenon of “social ownership” of Black wombs. This concept of social ownership dictated by the whims and means of others is a powerful metaphor for Black stories as well.
Who owns our stories, folktales, histories, fables, gospel, music, our narratives? As a black woman who often enters into museums and educational spaces expecting very little, I am always cautious around this time of year. This is where the “social ownership” of blackness is more commodified and capitalized on than any other time of year. You guessed it!
It’s February: Black History Month!
This often means that spaces and places sustain the momentum of MLK Day by engaging in a parade of respectable representations of blackness. I appreciate the linked the blog (above); the posters, images, media, poems can all tell us a singular story of high-flying Black people. It is a very conscious narrative creation that is often white-washed, heteronormative, and male-dominated. In a word: respectable.
Respectable calls us into the space of the most palatable blacks we can name. Here is where we name our hero as Martin, but our villain as Malcolm. Here is where we laud Mahalia Jackson’s “I Been ‘Buked and I Been Scorned” and whisper Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam.” We know someone else sat on a bus before Rosa, but it is always so hard to find her name.
Her name is Claudette Colvin. But she was a teenager and pregnant, so therefore not respectable.
We tell these stories without the vision and organizing of Bayard Rustin. He was genius and instrumental in designing the March on Washington. He was gay.
The experience of living Black culture is vastly different than consuming Black history. You can make it through an entire K-12 educational experience and never sense the wide scope of ethnic, linguistic, cultural, musical and social differences in Black America. And those variations of the lived black experience give us vibrant and relatable history rather than heroic and sanctified positions. Our stories are reductions of Black experience in America to the shortest month and the easiest sound bytes. It is the social ownership of Black identity that can harness the plurality of coexistence into the oft-repeated admonition: I have a dream. Always, aspirational, this one phrase captures where museums and other educational platforms stumble so often into the trite and assimilationist posture of respectability.
Having a dream is fine, fighting for the actualization of the dream is a problem.
Having a dream is valiant, but voicing concerns should be done elsewhere (anywhere else or in any other way aside from how you might be doing it).
Having a dream is applauding persistent oppression while maintaining status quo.
February 2018 can mark a change in this over-programmed and misunderstood time of year. We might start with the undoing of the “singular negro.” This is a reference to our national tendency to shine hot spotlights on our favorite heroic black people. Schools can resist forcing students to memorize quotes from “famous” Black people and ask students to search out local history-makers. Museums can stop programming around Black people only in February as if they just discovered Civil Rights protests took longer than 28 days.
This is how we can be “surprised” by the travesty of Henrietta Lacks and moved by the determination of the Hidden Figures movie as discovered contributions. We digest these true (yet deliberately superficial) narratives easily, but at great cost to our work, our progress, and our national compassion.
Let’s build a collective consciousness through conversation, collaborative programming, and community exploration.
We all play a role in shaping and sharing a narrative that requires multiple perspectives and deeper analysis. We can give each other more space to be and be Black. Then perhaps we reach for a fuller story of us.