A typical Black History Month has educators, artists, thought leaders and activists shoring up their calendars to accommodate the plethora of events that highlight the excellence and achievements of Black icons from many walks of life.
February 1, 2019 brought us a different mandate. The photos from Virginia Governor Northam’s medical school yearbook ripped off the scab of racism and begs us to have different conversations during this month.
If we look closely at the contemporary “Black Face Phenomenon,” we see white college students across the country, regularly donning Blackface for themed fraternity parties and Halloween. Yearly these events are captured on social media and, not surprisingly, there is outrage, hand-wringing and oft times disbelief that this is still happening today.
YES, it is still happening! Why? some might ask. Well, perhaps our nation’s tendency to have the “race” conversation only as a response to incidents or, only when referring to situations that involve People of Color contributes to the poor decisions and overall dys-consciousness of white youth.
White youth are raised to not see themselves in the discourse around race and on the oft chance that they are talking about race, they are having surface conversations, at best.
The Courageous Conversation is the one that takes us beneath the surface. Young people don’t just need to know that Blackface is wrong, they need to know the purpose that Blackface serves(d) in a system that elevates whiteness and denigrates blackness.
They need to watch films such as “Ethnic Notions” or “Blackin Up” and discuss the underpinnings of the systems of oppression that have been in place for hundreds of years; with a skilled facilitator. Systems that operate overtly and covertly, still in 2019.
We should use Black History Month to talk about systemic racism in inter-racial and intra-racial spaces. Discuss the systems and tactics that were designed to maintain slavery, Jim Crow and the disenfranchisement and dehumanization of Black Americans for centuries.
The systems that birthed black face and the KKK whose images showed up on Northam’s yearbook page and supported Virginia Senator Tommy Norment as he approved such racist imagery in the yearbook he edited. The systems that underpin the disturbing trend of blackface themed college parties.
We have to discuss all of the systems that need to be dismantled in order for us to write a new chapter in our national story.
Let’s use Black History Month both as a time to celebrate excellence and as a time to heal.