BHM 2017: What I Learned

Admittedly… I was a little over-confident about what I could accomplish in one month.

Four books, six movies, a TV show, with short stories and podcasts for good measure, was a little too ambitious. To be critical of myself, though, I did fail on many occasions to choose something to watch from my syllabus rather than something else. I certainly think I could have done more. Next year, I think I will ease up a bit on the “historical, non-fiction” requirements and allow more entertainment from black artists. At times, it was hard to choose a history lesson, (as artistic and beautiful as many of them were,) over less mindful entertainment.

I accomplished reading two of my books cover to cover, and starting the other two. (I intend to finish reading them both before I begin any other books.) I watched four of the movies, prioritizing the ones helmed by black directors. Additionally,though not on the list because I had already seen it, I watched Moonlight again during February. I realized during the first week that I did not actually have any access to watch Atlanta as I had intended, so I began watching Blackish on Hulu. I did follow through on reading lots of short stories from Langston Hughes, W.E.B. DuBois, Alice Walker, Zora Neale Hurston, among others.

I could go on and on about what I learned, and not cover it all since it was such an immersive experience. But one by one, I would love to highlight something important I learned from each thing I took in.

BOOKS

“Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” by Beverly Daniel Tatum

A must-read for educators and parents, but probably too much of a deep cut for everyone else, this book taught me about identity development for people of color (specifically African-americans, but it does also address other groups). Racial identity development is something that I absolutely took for granted as part of the dominant social group, and it’s profoundly important to recognize what a privilege that is and why it’s so hard to even imagine walking a mile in the shoes of someone who did not grow up white (and male.)

“Democracy in Black” by Eddie S. Glaude Jr.

Wow! This book routinely gave me chills, and at a few points I was audibly reacting during reading. This book is a fiery manifesto, and I wish it could be required reading.To pick just one thing I learned… I had been wondering why it seemed that only in the last few years the racial tensions, especially as it relates to police violence, had escalated so much. I started asking, “Has it always been like this and we’re only now paying attention, or has something changed recently that made it worse.” This book helped me understand that it’s both. Of course, social media has opened channels for sharing local stories, but the economic collapse of 2008 was especially devastating to Black Americans, who were barred from participating in the rebound that the rest of the market took in the years following. This increase in poverty, coupled with an increase in policing, has heightened that already existing tension to the boiling point.

“The Half Has Never Been Told” by Edward E Baptist

I am only a third of the way through this long work, but already I am becoming painfully aware of the deep economic roots of slavery. This book tells the story of enslavement not from a moral or political perspective, but rather tells the economic history of slavery. This “half of the story” is rarely told, as the title eludes, because we as Americans are too proud to admit the great economic system we built and modeled to the world was built entirely by and on black bodies. And when we fail to acknowledge that and simply offer a moral apology and political equality, we intentionally cut the people who built our world off from participating in its spoils. State lines, banking policies, credit swaps, supply-side economics, and countless cogs in our economic development were created to serve, perpetuate, and expand the enslavement of human beings. This book, as I continue to learn from it, heightens my awareness that we are not a country built on freedom, but a country built on self-interest.

MOVIES

Malcolm X 

Admittedly, this was a basic history lesson for me. I knew next to nothing about Malcolm X, except by comparison to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who I of course learned a lot about. Malcolm X, because of Spike Lee’s depiction and Denzel Washington’s portrayal, is a complex, flesh-and-blood figure to me now, and one I want to know a lot more about.

I Am Not Your Negro

I had a hard time keeping up with this film,  perhaps because I had been watching “O.J. Made in America”, which is a very linear and chronological documentary. “I Am Not Your Negro” is based on notes by James Baldwin that were intended one day to be shaped into a larger work, and my brain was sadly unable to think abstactly in the format. However, an interview with James Baldwin on the Dick Cavett show was worth the price of admission, and I intend to read lots of James Baldwin’s (completed) essays.

Fruitvale Station

A heart-breaking movie that depicted exactly how a situation can escalate between police and young black men, and how easy it can be to make assumptions and put people into categories. It hurt my heart to feel a sense of relief that the cop in question was actually charged with the wrongful death of Oscar Grant, especially since his sentence was laughable. These days we hardly see charges filed in these cases, and never are they found guilty. This movie is a tragic and beautiful reminder of the cost of our prejudices.

O.J.: Made in America

If there’s one reason why I failed to watch six movies this month, it might be because this one is the length of six movies on its own. But I do not regret that I spent eight hours with this story, because I learned more about race in Los Angeles, (the place I call home,) than I’ve learned in several years living here and trying to understand it. This documentary is brilliant, informative, thrilling, and thought-provoking. The most terrifying thing I learned is that public outrage, even righteous and noble outrage, can be used to do evil. It also reminds me that some wounds take a long time to heal, and that living in and love Los Angeles means coming to terms with its deep racial history.

SHORT STORIES

I won’t write about every short story I read, because they were many. I lead a group at work once a week called “Short Stories”, where I pick a story and we (myself and people experiencing homelessness), read it together and discuss it. This month, we read only stories by black writers, and I had to read about 25 stories to pick out the four we read in the group. We read:

Thank You, Ma’am by Langston Hughes

On Being Crazy by W.E.B. DuBois

Act I: Scene III from Fences by August Wilson

The Book of Harlem by Zora Neale Hurston

I learned two things in reading these stories with this group of people. The first is that there is so much engrained and unintentional but starkly real racism in our adult population. But the second thing I learned was that the reason to emphasize these stories is not to cure or lessen the racism of my white participants (though I do hope this happened.) The major accomplishment was that my black participants were able to connect deeply to stories and authors they had been denied access to before. Some of my black participants were finding deep connection with the racism, the father figures, the sense of pride mixed with anger, and other unique characteristics of these stories that they had not otherwise before experienced in my group. It was an important reminder that Black History Month is not simply for white people to learn more, but to validate and enrich the experience of Black Americans. Imagine that… Black History Month is not about me.

I suppose this blog post sort of works against that notion. I hope that I haven’t made Black History Month about myself in doing this. I only share it because I learned a lot, and while the world may not hinge on my learning and waking up, it may remove me, and others over whom I have influence, from being an obstacle to the flourishing of my black brothers and sisters. I hope I am less in the way than I was in January, and continue to get out of the way more and more each passing month.

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