On September 24th, 2016 and in the serene surroundings of Washington DC, the National Museum of African American History and Culture was formally opened to an eager crowd of over twenty thousand people, an event led by the current President of the United States, President Barack Obama.
And although it is human disposition for one to be grateful at the thought that they are worthy enough to be remembered, although it is human for us to come to grips with the little drops of remembrance that has been fed our eager lips. It is human for us to jump at the thought that someone considers Blacks worthy enough to be eulogized in a huge museum in the Nation’s capital, Is this however, what we should be feeling?
“A great nation does not hide its history, it faces its flaws and corrects them” is what former President, George W Bush says at the opening of the museum, he goes further to remind us that this museum is to tell the truth, and I quite frankly do not have a problem with this, the past is important.
I however have a problem with the deficient idea that is separate museums to define a vastly connected past , one a great nation trying to portray that it has effectively moved forward from a radically dark past of racism is very excited about, a nation very obsessed with labels, obsessed with color.
I like to think of the Black community as the poor beggar in the parable Jesus told, I like to think that we are so used to being at the table of the Whites, that we are so used to being fed crumbs that we leap in excitement when the crumbs are bigger. That we are thankful for large chunks flung at us from the table, we are thankful for Black history month and a Black museum, and Black television, and not actually questioning why we should be fed from a table in the first place.
I understand that equity amongst races was not customary in times past, but how possible is it that in our bid to establish equality, in our bid to lift the Black community to shoulder level on ivory towers the Whites already occupy, we constantly propagate how unequal Blacks were. How possible is it that equity can be achieved by reminding younger generations of how much the color of their skin would affect their lives.
Quite interestingly, the founder of Black History Month, Carter G. Woodson – who started it off as Negro History Week – had never perceived Black history as a one-month affair; he never perceived it to be something that was learned only for a constrained period. And so, it is safe to say that much of the essence of Black history Month was lost from its inception till now.
Because the knowledge that Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus to a White passenger, the knowledge that a Black boy was murdered because he whistled at a White woman, the knowledge of the Scottsboro case, is American history, not just Black history. It involves two parties, whose existence, whose experience in life was and –if things continue this way- probably always will be detached simply because of the colour of their skin.
More importantly, Black history is larger than slavery; it is larger than always casting Blacks as the occupants of the lower rift of life, the people whose realities are tailored by the decisions of the Whites, unfortunate characters whose lives are responses to White calls in the song of existence.
There are Black people who have done mind-blowing things -beyond the common examples, there is Garrett Morgan who created the first traffic light, and Lewis Latimer- for the carbon filament -whose inventions were used in Edison’s light bulb. But this is not at all celebrated and more critically, one month is too limited a time to learn about all this
One can overlook this as an unconscious system that presents the Black community in this light if Black History month did not occur every year. And so the Black community because of this, because of their reluctance to question this routine are effectively saying “We know Whites will always be superior to Blacks, but we want to teach our kids why it will always be so and we need twenty-nine days for it”
The National Museum of African American History and Culture is one of many such examples. For a country that claims that it has almost journeyed safely from the shackles of racism, that racism is a shadow that trails after it and not in essence what it is, why then the apparent need to emphasize how different we are, rather than how similar. Why then the apparent need to always, perhaps sublimely, remind us that there will always be Black and White and not as counterparts on this journey of life, but as two people whose past will always impede their future.
Not that we should be blind to our obvious differences, not that Whites or Blacks do not exist or that racism was fiction, the problem rather is why we choose to magnify these differences, why we choose to emphasize them and somehow secure pride from it.
Why can’t Black History like White history be celebrated every month of the year, why can’t there be a national museum of American History and Culture rather than separate museums, why can’t history be taught randomly without emphasizing on Blacks or Whites. Why can’t we focus on bridging this divide as opposed to thinking that recognising it will somehow construct these bridges, why can’t we lace Black history together with American history because it is just as important?
I am from Nigeria, and we have diverse cultures. And so, I believe that culture is very vital, that it is okay to have Igbo history, and Yoruba history, because they unlike Black history classify people on things broader than the colour of their skin, because they recognise us for what we are and not what we’d never be.
I will not say that the works of Woodson or Lewis and all the other great men who have worked to make Black history a reality have been worthless; I will not say that they have laboured for nothing, or that Black history month has not helped in propagating facets of our history.
But the problem with Black history is not that it is unnecessary, or that learning history is terrible, it is not that. The problem with Black history is that it is stereotyped, is that it designates only twenty-nine or thirty-days to learn about a certain people simply because of the colour of their skin, the problem is that it is White Supremacy dressed in Black trinkets.
And as long as Black History Month continues, and more Smithsonian museums are built, as long as we raise kids in a society that is keen on emphasizing difference, we cannot truly abolish racism, we can live with it, but not do away with it.
As Desmond Tutu said, and because this is what truly matters; my humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together.
Photo: Stacy V McClain