So, we just wrapped up another Black History Month and it was a disappointing month on many levels, to be honest. That’s not really a new feeling, but it hit especially hard this year.
I mean, let’s look at the racial climate we’re living in right now. We had that so-called “racial awakening” of 2020, which all too quickly gave way to racial fatigue and apathy. This created the perfect conditions for a growing national push against critical race theory, especially to prevent it from being taught to schoolchildren—even though it isn’t taught in any K-12 school anywhere, nor is it even a history curriculum, but that’s a whole other post for a whole other day.
Then there was the pushback against defunding the police, even though throwing more money at the cops doesn’t get crimes solved any better and doesn’t reduce or prevent crime either—when there’s never been any hesitancy to defund social and infrastructure programs to shift money toward unnecessarily militarizing the police.
Considering this current racial moment—and these are just a few of the biggest examples of what’s gone wrong lately—there is a certain hypocrisy that I and other Black people see when white folks fawn all over Black History Month. We see white people, politicians most prominently, lift up dead—and therefore “safe” Black people—all while they aren’t too far away from outlawing blackness itself. It is cognitive dissonance at its best.
Living in Maine, though, adds another level to the cognitive dissonance of Black History Month. Maine is 94% white, or if you want to be exact, it’s 94.4% white. Mind you, in the 20 years since I have arrived in Maine, the state has become a tad less white. I think it was at about 96% to 98% white when I arrived in 2002. But to hear some say it, Maine is downright diverse.
Maybe it’s just the fact that I was born and raised in a place with a significant Black population. I didn’t see white people on a regular basis until I entered kindergarten and, outside of school, white people rarely existed in our family circle. Saturday mornings, my grandmother and I ran errands—we went to the barbershop, the bakery, the butcher, and the bank. All Black people, except for the Greek insurance agent who came to her house some Saturdays. To be honest, there was only one white person I ever saw my family engage with on a social level, and that was my mother’s cousin’s white wife. Even after they split up, she still came around to the family cookouts with her kids in tow. Patricia definitely had the cookout invite before it became an actual thing.
My point being that as someone who grew up in significantly Black spaces—even after marrying a white guy—it has been interesting to experience blackness in Maine. In Maine, blackness is erased in many locales, lumped into the broader “people of color” (POC, or the more recent BIPOC, standing for Black, Indigenous and other people of color)
Now, to be honest, this isn’t just a Maine thing to reduce Black people to merely a slice of a pie called POC. But living here, I see this very often and very clearly. And no matter how often in the past I’ve touched on this subject, I’ve had to bring it up again to remind people. As I am again here.
Last month, the local rag ran a piece on Black artists titled “Of Black History month and their work, Black and brown artists say, ‘it’s complicated.’” The article primarily spoke to and about Black artists living and working in Maine, so there’s that. But note the “brown” in the title—it did feel the need to mention the work of other artists of color.
Look, Black History Month was born out of Negro History Week. The observation of Black History Month dates back to 1915, when Carter G. Woodson, now known as the “Father of Black History,” created an organization called the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. In 1926, Woodson initiated the first Negro History Week on Feb. 7 to celebrate and raise awareness of Black history. This morphed into a month-long endeavor in various places, particularly academic institutions (starting in 1970) and then in 1976 Black History Month got its federal-level recognition from the president.
At the very least, can Black people have is one month that actually acknowledges our contributions to this country and to the larger world without having to dilute our stories? In choosing to distill all non-white people down to simply being BIPOC or POC, we erase blackness. More than that, we erase all distinctive racial experiences. We refuse to even acknowledge that not all non-white people have the same experience—even when they all experience racism.
But this hits especially hard for Black people. Look, this is a country that still refuses to truly acknowledge what it did to Black people and continues to challenge the notion that we are rightly owed reparations. As the grandchild of sharecroppers and the descendent of enslaved Africans, I understand quite well the legacy of economic disenfranchisement which is part of my family’s legacy. Both my parents died with no financial legacy to pass on to my brother and I. My father, as one of 16 kids, received no financial legacy from his parents—who were sharecroppers (in other words, only barely removed from slavery).
While all non-white people may experience racism at some point, the fact is that within communities of color that are not Black, there can be virulent strains of anti-blackness within those groups.
Indigenous people and Black people share many similarities as far as our story in the United States, especially in the roles our people played in the formation of the country. However, not all Indigenous people see Black people as natural allies. White supremacy created a hierarchy where even proximity to whiteness had value. There were tribes that enslaved Africans just as the white people did—descendants of those people are still fighting to be seen as tribal members. Clearly Black and Indigenous solidarity is a very real thing but it is not always a given. Not all communities of color are open to recognizing the struggle of Black people. Or even accepting Black people.
In Maine and beyond, reducing Black people to simply being POC or BIPOC—and then using a time designated to celebrate Black people to expand the “celebrations” and include other people of color cheapens the supposed honor of Black History Month. What message are we actually sending to Black people? My daughter has grown up in this state—in the largest city which boasts about its diversity—and she sees very few Black girls like herself. At 16, she has never met another Black queer girl like herself in this state. Again, we live in the most diverse city in Maine and she attended the most diverse middle school in the state.
There is a time when communities of color can and should come together. But given that Black Americans are still disproportionately impacted by racism and the vast majority of us do not have a skin tone that allows proximity to whiteness—and the tiny safety nuggets that proximity allows—we aren’t all having the same experience.
While I appreciate the desire to be inclusive of all, there are times and places to acknowledge the bigger POC picture and there are times we need to focus on the specifics of racism. In a world built on white supremacy and anti-blackness, reducing us to nothing more than POC is a convenient way to avoid addressing the issue of just how deeply anti-blackness is embedded in the fabric our society—all while pretending to be more racially evolved.
No, thanks; I am a Black woman. Please name my blackness, and let me know that you see me and mine.
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