Friday, February 13, 2009

Black History Month Is Personal

My seven-year-old daughter wants to know why there are only two African American students in her first grade class. She is one of the two.

“Is it because of slavery?” she asks me from the back seat of the car. “Because I was thinking that lots of Black people died during slavery, and maybe that's why there are only two African Americans in my class but so many white people.”


No, I say. Well, sort of yes, but in a long, painful, complicated way that I haven't yet figured out how to explain to my seven-year-old. Where do I start in outlining the history of systemic racism and violence that have shaped housing and education opportunities, economic trends, migration patterns across generations?


I start with what she really wants to know, what she's really trying to say: she's telling me how it feels to be one of only a few students of color in a predominately white elementary school. She's telling me that she notices, and that other kids notice.

She's also telling me that someday she wants to be somewhere different. “Maybe my next school can have, you know, a bigger mix of people. And then maybe after that we'll move somewhere where there are mainly, you know, Black people.”

She pauses.


“How do you find places like that?”


In the local newspaper, there is an editorial suggesting that we no longer need to celebrate Black History Month because, with the election of Barack Obama, Black history has “made it” and merged with American history. I disagree, enormously. So-called American history is built on the bodies of brown and black people; it is all one history but the particular stories of people of color have been suppressed, rewritten, killed.


But in this moment, I'm not worried about Black history. I'm worried about Black now. I'm worried about my Black daughter in the now of a predominately white, rural-minded community that doesn't want to “deal” with Black History month and race and racism.


My daughter and I go into the house to read “Happy To Be Nappy” and choose a new style for her braids. Then we'll do homework to make for damn sure that my beautiful brown one of two stays at the top of her class. Show up those white kids who say she has funny hair.

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