Posts Tagged ‘ignorance’

Black History Month: Relevant or Unnecessary

Every year without fail, folks pose the preposterous question, “is Black History Month relevant?

Well…I could immediately begin lamenting the train of thought that leads one to pose that question. But I’d rather share a story with you.

Not so long ago, growing up on the low end of the south side of Chicago, my neighborhood was big on history. In fact, within a 20-block radius of our home on 49th and Michigan, it was nothing to pass through vibrant Black institutions. There was Baldwin Ice Cream Parlor where my cousins and I sat in their heart-shaped chairs and ate our favorite Bubble-gum filled ice cream. On our way to and from the family’s place of worship, Pilgrim Baptist Church; a historical institution itself, we passed the Supreme Life Insurance Building.  There were the public housing developments such as Robert Taylor and Ida B. Wells homes. And the elementary schools I attended, Anthony Overton and Walter H. Dyett Middle School, which similar to a majority of the other schools in the surrounding area were all named for courageous and pioneering Black Americans such as Mary C. Terrell, Bessie Coleman, Jean-Baptiste Pointe Dusable to name a few.

Funny thing about all that history on the low end is its significance was rarely directly imparted to us children, especially concerning the names of the schools we entered everyday. Back then those institutions and businesses stood as a backdrop to a decaying community where Pony cocaine packs littered the streets, neighborhood drunks became heroes, prostitutes turned tricks in vacant lots and schools named after greatness dealt in mediocre standards.

The only time we became remotely aware of the greatness that at one time thrived in our very neighborhood was during the 28 days of February. And even then, only a select few highlighted for us.

Today, that neighborhood is no longer the undesirable “low end” but in its gentrified state is referred to by a much more distinguished name, Bronzeville. There are actual history tours dedicated to showcasing all the landmarks and legacy there.

Considering how little the children who grew up there in the early 80s and 90s were collectively taught of the greatness we were born from, I can’t help but wonder how little of ourselves we would have known if not for Black History Month.

And that’s not the only relevance Black History Month has. Here’s a list in no particular order:

Cultural exchange…

The reality, outside of our own timelines, news and RSS feeds, nobody else is really talking about contributions of Blacks, at least not in any historical context. And with the exception of a few conscious minded Black folks and curious foreigners, the study of Black life and culture is hardly a major interest of whites.

Get your mind right….

So much superfluous chatter online and talk shows, in barber shops and hair salons, relegated to ice cream tattoos, Real Housewives and The Game drama, Twitter beefs, and all things pop culture. At least folks pay a little more attention to our heritage and legacy during February.

Return of investment (ROI)

Corporations and institutions who earn millions of dollars from their strategic marketing and psychological bait of Blacks, invests a small token of those earnings to diversity and cultural programming, much of it during BHM. Not to mention some of our grand award programs and specials would sorely miss the sponsorship dollars.

BHM pays the bills…

Many a Black freedom fighter, professor, author and otherwise self-proclaimed intellectual banks on the speaking engagement and panel appearances across the county. If not for the BHM circuit, most of them would never gain access to the level of mainstream exposure (paid gigs) they garner during February.

I see Black people…

PBS and Cable networks dedicate the entire month to feature Black films and culture, i.e. HBO Lackawanna Blues, What the Lord Made et al

New school…

In these times, schools don’t bear the names of historic figures that its scholars can relate to, but named for neighborhoods or corporate donors. Kids don’t even get to wonder or Google about the greatness over the doors they walk through daily.

The vision…

When Carter G. Woodson created first the week and later the month, the intent was to celebrate all the accomplishments of Black Americans. He had already devoted his life to the research and study of Black life, subsequently forming the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. The month-long celebration is merely an extension.

Which is why I just don’t understand how some question its relevance. Are you ready to say farewell to Black History Month? Have we really overcome a time for celebrating our history?

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What’s the ‘wig’ deal…it’s post-racial America?

Halloween 2010 has come and gone this year. That’s not to say it was an uneventful season of horrors. In fact, there were quite a few shocking occurrences to usher in the traditional trick or treat festivities. Perhaps the most prevalent is the politricks for the upcoming elections, Still there was one other trick that came in the form of a supposed costume marketed by retailers, namely Kohl’s Department Store. It wasn’t entirely spooky or ghoulish as is customary for the “ultimate” Halloween costume. The item in question was simply a wig. Yes, a wig. Sounds harmless enough, right? It could have been. But… it freaked a lot of consumers out and exploded into a PR nightmare for Kohl’s.

Now, I’m sure Kohl’s and other retailers believed the costume would be a seasonal top-seller. Unfortunately, Kohl’s chose to market the wig as a “Ghetto Fab Wig.”  Granted the manufacture created the name for the wig, still the final decision rested with Kohl’s.

Outraged consumers found the wig’s name flagrantly offensive, a failed attempt at creative marketing. Social networks exploded with comments and blogs on the situation.

Eventually the company conceded with apologies and the removal of the wig from its online store.

This appeased many…and those who’d berated the company smugly tweeted, updated Facebook statuses and blogs about their assumed victory. Subsequently, Sears followed suit removing the product from their seasonal offerings, further prompting a declared social media victory celebrated with more glib posts, virtual high fives and fist bumps.

But here again, the root problem was NOT the wig.

Now that Halloween 2010 lives amongst the ghosts of holidays past, it has buried with it the impetus for a very necessary, American conversation.

In this century, where many love to wax poetic about our “post-racial” society, race, ethnicity and cultural differences seem to sneak back into our public conversation, all too often in ways that are not the most endearing. Truth is, we have never had a frank discussion on the matter in the first place, but then expect to jump over the real talk to get to the fluff. The only time we want to deal with complex issues is when a white person uses a racial slur or makes an evenly derogative comment.

Race and culture aside, it is an intricate and complex web of issues whenever you begin to discuss Black women’s hair.

The name prescribed to the focus wig symbolizes the utter ignorance related to cultural identity. It is a struggle that has always existed. And it is a painful struggle for Black women who share the history of Sara Baartman, paraded to the world as Venus Hottentot, as well as the fictitious Aunt Jemima. Over and over again in our history is a ripped wound where Black beauty has been ridiculed, parodied, yet simultaneously coveted in secret.

So when Whites use social class to describe hairstyles, fashion and the myriad ideologies culturally relevant to Black women, without an authentic understanding or appreciation, it is offensive at the surface level, and ignorant at its base. First to have some inherent knowledge for the origin and complexity of use for words is the only way to avoid misappropriation of language. Still, when a corporate entity commits the offense, it becomes much more reprehensible and is exploitative in nature.

Perhaps the virtual fist bumps and the high fives could’ve waited a tad bit longer. Because when, (as I know the situation has probably already made its way into a PowerPoint or Keynote), folks reference this as a case study for “social media activism,” I do hope they understand that this was merely a small scuffle, not credible enough to gain the title battle. We lost a momentous advantage to take up a worthy battle with deliberation. The battle yet to be won is when corporate entities confer with consumers who can speak to the messaging they aim at “targeted” audiences. It is to ensure proper representation is at the table when marketing “experts” seek to brand and promote “cultural” products as a parody. It is to put front of mind the imperative pairing of sensitivity and sensibility.

And though some may consider it a stretch, this outcome was/is the fear that caused such an emotional response from Black women following the news that Essence Magazine decided to hire a white woman as Fashion Director. We know the power put into the hands of those who first observe then seek to define us. One wrong move can crush progress and strangle race relations. Where intentions are mired with the end and hard to justify.

Even further, the battle is internal. We must define ourselves for ourselves. What we do and speak gives others consent to do the same, or worse. It is largely due to our own glamorization of certain terminology. While so many are quick to set up a “reality” scene with abject connotations to their very own culture; dismissing a group because of their social class all while sharing the same original pedigree, it gives way for misunderstandings from those on the perimeter. What is communal and a shared language amongst cultures always stands the risk of losing its meaning, but even more dangerous is the chance for outsiders to interpret the exchange with malice. This is a fact for strong consideration as we make music and art to express the gift of our culture. And it is especially detrimental if we do not consider it when purporting things as “reality,” no matter if we consider ourselves Housewives, editors, producers, journalists, and yes artists too.

Take caution in the use of language. After all I am a firm believer that words have the power to heal or kill. And so corporations and individuals must choose.