(This is a satire of this bullshit right here.)
February is always a funny month in the black community. We are inevitably flooded with well-meaning McDonald’s commercials featuring black families (wisely sans chicken nuggets) and Budweiser posters of African kings and queens, sometimes peanut farmers and traffic light inventors. It’s not like any other month because it’s Black History Month, and man, do we get our share of well-meaning white folks every one of those 28 days.
As I was gearing up for this year’s Black History Month – expected to be particularly crowded this year with internet bon mots and Black Studies 101 trivia because America had not been on its best behavior in 2013 – looking for books to check out at a local library, a young, fairly bright-eyed white man with blonde dreadlocks came into the stacks behind me. It appeared he had never set foot in the 973.0496 section of the library – he was frowning at the call numbers, tapping a finger to his chin in great concentration, blinking a lot. Within the first few moments of perusing the stacks, I saw the fear in his eyes compound upon itself with grave despondency and then an utter lack of understanding. Before he had even pulled his first book off the shelf he had taken to tsking with his lips pursed, clearly mourning the sum total of his very existence. He stared at a shelf full of Langston Hughes criticism for several heartbreaking seconds.
Because I was in the same aisle I had no choice but to glance in his direction any time I needed to turn a page. I’ve seen white people freeze up in black history sections many times, and it’s a sad thing, but as I’m not a librarian there isn’t much I can do about it. I don’t know the Dewey numbers for surfboarding or bong-making. I couldn’t stop thinking about this hippie. Even when I wasn’t stealing glances at him, I knew he was waiting for me to say something to him to assuage his despair. Over the course of the next sixty seconds or so, I felt his distress turn into a whimpering pleading and then into complete detachment about the affairs of black people. I could feel his pulling away all over me and my keenly honed sense of racial parsing.
I was completely unable to focus on my research about who invented Spades, instead feeling hyper-aware of my intimidating winter-only afro, my Sidney Poitier-esque carriage, my tastefully coy reading glasses, my well-versedness in keeping my pants up with a belt, the sheer jaw-dropping Cam Winston-ness of my personal space. My clearly formidable black intelligence. Surely this granola muncher was noticing all of these things and judging me for them, stereotyping me, Fox News-ing me – OR SO I IMAGINED.
I thought about how even though Black History Month spends a whopping 28 days out of a 365 day year, it really tends to take over the public mind during that month. What, with its overwhelming presence in the media day in and out, its insidious infiltration onto classroom bulletin boards, its 2-for-1 specials on hair nets at dollar stores and carry-outs. The month simply swells with consideration and constant verification of black existence that, during the other eleven months, Americans as a whole are too spent to acknowledge black history, such is our collective commitment to righting the wrongs of the past.
I thought about how that must feel: to be a dreadlocked white man smelling of patchouli essence and dumpster weed caring for the first time about black history enough to check out a book on it from the library, confronted by my bespectacled blackness manifest. I would want as little blackness to get on me as possible – isn’t it enough I want the book?! – for fear that my being and culture be consumed. So I tried to ignore him but it only made it worse. I thought about what a degreed and proper librarian could have done to help him. Would a simple “Finding everything you need?” whisper have helped, or would it drive him to the urban gardening display? Should I encourage him, reassuring him that it wasn’t leap year and that there was no chance that Black History Month would go 29 days this time around? Or would that come off condescending, or worse, as a threat? I may have glasses and a suit jacket on, but by God, I am still black.
I got home from the library and promptly broke down crying. Not cool, thug tear/Denzel-in-Glory crying…real lost your job crying. The kind that makes Delta blues musicians write songs about their missing body parts. Black History Month, a nearly-full month of proud, racial Trivial Pursuit high-fiving that teaches everyone about black people, suddenly felt TOO black. Knowing full well that while I am black 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, here was this block of time when black people begged people to pay attention to their existence at the expense of precious commercial time normally reserved for Vagisil and adorable polar bears drinking Coke by the case. Even though I recognized all of this, I was shaken by it all the same.
The question is, of course, so much bigger than Black History Month – it’s a question of making white people feel comfortable, even in black spaces. How can we create black space – black conversations, black ideas, black answers about black needs – palpable and comfy for sensitive white people? How can Black History Month find a happy medium that recognizes white contributions to black history? We certainly could not have a black history at all without their contributions. And while I recognize that there is an element of the thug in this instance – a bit of the cultural savage as bully – it is precisely this feeling of not being able to be seen as merely intelligent that mitigates the hope for white comfort.