Friday, April 3, 2009

Oh please, not again...

There's this conversation that happens periodically on a forum I frequent for parents who have adopted from Ethiopia--often in relation to Black History month or Martin Luther King Day--about our children and their relationship to the particular black history of the US. Usually, the argument goes something like this: my child was born in Ethiopia and thus his/her heritage is Ethiopian and his/her cultural history is Ethiopian. Thus, the black history of the US is not my child's history, and there is no reason for us to celebrate or honor that history as part of his/her story. And there might be a "I think Black History month is stupid," comment thrown in there somewhere too.

The motivations behind these comments appear to fall into two, sometimes overlapping, categories. The first is a naive kind of magical thinking among white parents that by identifying their children as Ethiopian-American rather than black that they can prevent their children from experiencing racism. It's almost as if the identification as Ethiopian can somehow--this is the magical part--mitigate skin color. I was one of those naive believers once, until brought up short by a friend, and I am sympathetic to this desire, if not to its (il)logic. But the other strain--although often overlapping the first--is far more worrisome, reflecting at worst, deeply held yet deeply veiled racist beliefs, and at best, a tendency to see only the negative aspects of black history and culture. One parent, for example, even went as far to say that 400 years of African American history was a lot to "saddle" a child with. This strikes me as a sadly reductionist understanding of black history that entirely misses the point and I said so:

How about all the strong and beautiful and courageous elements of African-American history/culture? Shouldn't it be [her son's] privilege to identify with those? especially in light of all the not-so-nice assumptions that many will likely make about him?) To me, this is one good reason of many to celebrate Black History month.

It's not as if black history is ONLY a history of slavery. Or ONLY a history of Jim Crow. Or ONLY a history of police dogs and firehoses. We can't overlook that history, but what about all the rest? (On this note, you might see Tami's post on reclaiming her own history.) It probably does not need to be said that the problematic comments I note above come from white people, but I wonder, too, if there isn't a larger cultural problem (I'm talking broader American culture here) about how we represent black history in this country. I'm reminded of Ta-Nehisi Coates' childhood memories of black history month:
But mostly when I think of Black History Month, I think of being made to watch footage of Negroes getting the shit kicked out of them, and then Negro teachers extolling the nobility of letting someone kick the shit out of you.

I thought about my own limited childhood exposure to black history via the PBS documentary "Eyes on the Prize" and I could see where he was coming from. Things like "Eyes on the Prize" (scenes of which I STILL remember today) should be required viewing for all white Americans, in my book. Maybe even required ANNUAL viewing. But for black Americans, particularly black children? I'm not so sure. And should this be the ONLY thing white Americans see of black history? I'm thinking not...

But I digress. Just a few days ago, far from the adoptive parent forum, this very same issue of whose history is whose history arose in the place I would least have expected it: a therapist's office. M. and I have been seeing a couples therapist, and the occasion for her comment was a conversation about the obligations and responsibilities of raising our son, J. My husband is a historian, and so history came up. And the therapist actually says this: "J.'s history is not the history of slavery . . . THANK GOD," in the tone of someone delivering good news while helpfully clearing up a misunderstanding. I felt like my stomach had just fallen down an elevator shaft. I may have actually gaped at her for a moment. Heck, I was already parrying shots from M. and the last thing I needed was another battlefront. But here was this woman saying (1) black history is not my son's history; and (2) black history is only about slavery. I put on my battle gear and waded in, but didn't get very far. She had, apparently, gleaned these ideas from her reading of Obama's first book, which I have not yet read, and was adamant that he saw his history as distinct from American black history. All I could say, over and over, was "Only J. can say what history feels like his."

And, for the record, I'll be standing by that.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this post. You make some excellent points that we would all do well to remember. And, in the end, The way that we identify our children may differ from the way they choose to identify themselves, which may differ from the assumptions that our society (which was built upon longstanding foundations of racism and unearned privilege) will make about our children.