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February 8, 2007
RICHARD J. ROSENDALL
A history sobering and stirring
Last week on Comedy Central, on the eve of Black History Month, the Daily Show’s “senior black historian,” Larry Wilmore, mocked the observance. When host Jon Stewart asked him incredulously, “Don’t you feel that Black History serves a purpose?” he replied, “Yes, the purpose of making up for centuries of oppression with 28 days of trivia. You know, I’d rather we got casinos....”
PoMo iconoclasm notwithstanding, Black History Month has a value beyond snippets about successful strivers and scientists and tales of victory over oppression (not that there is anything wrong with that). It reminds non-blacks of “a history in which you are not the narrator.” That phrase sticks with me from Brown, Richard Rodriguez’s 2002 book on Hispanics in America. He is addressing the ghost of historian Alexis de Tocqueville concerning a passage from Democracy in America in which Tocqueville describes coming upon three people in a clearing: an American Indian woman, a “Negress,” and a little white girl. After describing Tocqueville’s observations, which include a claim that Negroes respond like canines to mistreatment while Indians respond like felines, Rodriguez offers a rebuke: “These women are but parables of your interest in yourself. Rather than consider the nature of their intimacy, you are preoccupied alone with the meaning of your intrusion.”
My own most illuminating narrator of African American history has been my dear ex-boyfriend Robert, who tells me many stories about growing up in Mississippi in the 1960s: How he and his siblings had to be driven to and from school because their parents were voting rights workers and it wasn’t safe to walk. How other children were told not to play with them because of their parents’ outspokenness. How their church and three others were bombed for sponsoring Head Start programs. How a white neighbor, distraught over losing his home to foreclosure, started shooting up the front of their home and how, when the man stopped to reload, their father rushed outside to beat the hell out of him. How they were not allowed on Mississippi beaches, and were required to go to the back entrance of the ice cream parlor. How Robert got in trouble with a teacher for disputing a textbook’s benign portrayal of slavery, and how his father came to the school, initially stern with him, but after assessing the evidence declared, "My son doesn’t have to accept these lies."
I can hardly know what it is like to grow up in such circumstances; but loving a black man has opened a vivid window for me not just on the legacy of racism, but on the strength and resourcefulness that families like Robert’s have needed to prevail against it. Robert has told many stories over the years of being stopped for “driving while black”; being singled out at airport security checkpoints; being followed around stores; being kept waiting in restaurants long after white customers who arrived later were served; of the chief judge in the state capital who, entering an elevator, encountered a white woman who suddenly cowered and clutched her purse in terror. How can you “get over it,” as one Virginia politician recently advised black people, when you are continually slapped with such indignities?
Key to this heritage of oppression and struggle is that it is not safely discrete, to be commemorated once a year and put away again, but integral to our collective history. Love is providing a powerful means of transformation, the one feared by segregationists. Last Christmas, I held my biracial 3-month-old great nephew and sang him to sleep while his 2-year-old brother sat beside us playing with his new toy farm tractor. How much old baggage do we want to lay on these children? Which would be worse for them – to let them come up with their own terms for themselves, à la Tiger Woods, or to impose the creaky and arbitrary One Drop Rule? For today’s multiracial children, the Tragic Mulatto is ancient history.
When Tiger used “Cablinasian” in interviews ten years ago after his first Masters win, many black people were offended by what they saw as a denial of his blackness. Weren’t they being just as self-centered as Tocqueville? Tiger does have the blood of four continents flowing in his veins, and parents from two distinct cultures. Why should he have to choose? It isn’t as if he doesn’t grasp the significance of his achievements. As the cheers rose up on that historic day at Augusta National, Earl Woods pointed to the black employees watching from a clubhouse balcony and told his son to soak it in. Tiger knows how many clubs turned his father away. His own transformation of his sport should be vindication enough for anyone. He has shown through his Foundation that he appreciates the importance of his parents’ nurturing.
As times change, adjustments are necessary all around. When I think about what Robert’s parents had to endure, what he continues to endure, I wonder how he avoids a constant state of rage. Given such a history, a strong dose of mistrust is not only understandable, it is a survival skill. But as Tiger learned well, a champion does not just demand respect, he commands it. What I want my little nephews to learn is what Earl and Kultida Woods taught their son, and Robert’s parents taught him: Other people’s ignorance is their problem. Don’t ever let it stop you.