Black Folks and Black History

It’s Black History Month as we all know, generally I take a pass on talking much about it in this space since in my daily life it comes up quite a bit especially living in Maine. A few years ago I was involved with planning activities for Black History Month with a friend who put together events for her local town. It was then that it started to dawn on me that there was an issue that very few Black folks ever discuss that I feel needs to be discussed because if we did it would make a huge difference in how we approach the issue of Black History.

In my last post, I talked about NBC’s approach to Black History which took the form of serving a meal that for some bordered on offensive and for others inspired a lot of what’s the big deal. Well after further research it seems the woman behind this is one chef by the name of Leslie Calhoun who happens to be Black. It seems that Ms. Calhoun had asked to do this for some time and had gotten approval and thought it was a nice way to celebrate the month. For Ms Calhoun she had no idea that her “Black” meal would create such a stir and the interview I saw with her she appeared down right bothered that her seemingly nice act was received in such a negative light.

In my last post, several folks brought up the fact and I agree that why is the approach to celebrating diversity always done in such a surface manner- generally rolling out foods and costumes to celebrate a culture. Of course within the context of Black History in America it gets even more complicated since not everyone who is considered a Black American shares a similar background. After all one can be Black and American yet not have any direct ancestry based in the South thus foods like greens and chicken would not be historically a part of that person’s culture. After all fried chicken, greens, etc are not a Black meal, they are a regional meal…plenty of white folks in the South eat this food. It’s just that some how it got a reputation for being Black/soul food.

However there is another issue that rarely gets addressed and that is the issue of class and race. Part of it is that Americans like to see themselves as classless with the idea that anyone can move up the ladder, after all America offers great opportunity to all. That may be true but there is still a class system in place and it’s in place for Black Americans as well. It’s something very few Black folks ever like to discuss but just like any other group we are very much shaped by our class of origin as well as the class that we may move into. I suspect class played a large part in the reactions to the fried chicken incident. I don’t know Chef Calhoun but having seen the video of her interview, I am going to make an assumption (yeah, I know what they say about assumptions) but Calhoun appears to be a member of the working class and this is not meant to disrespect her in any way since as a child of the working class I still strongly identify with the working class. For Calhoun she was not looking at the larger issues, she simply wanted to do something nice, in her mind the meal she chose to serve represents the scope of her experiences and they are valid. The larger issue became that the chicken meal cannot and does not represent the whole of Black America. After all there are many Black Americans with a wide array of experiences and we don’t all eat the same foods no more than any other group.

Yet because class issues are rarely discussed as it relates to Black folks it seems we are constantly setting ourselves us for these types of misunderstandings. I know because once upon a time I used to think that all Black folks shared a similar background, one generally rooted in ties to the south. It was not until I moved to the east coast and became acquainted with Black folks who had no ties to the south either personally or secondhand that I had to stop making assumptions and I have been a lot happier since then. Since I no longer walk around assuming we have a shared background.

So if anything, for Black History Month I think we should all take a step back to see the wide range of diversity that exists within the Black experience and be respectful of them all. There is no one way to be Black, in fact we do ourselves a disservice when we look for us all to be the same especially within the Black community. Some of us our guilty of the same myopia that affects other races when they look at Blacks and it must stop. Anyway that’s my thoughts on Black History this month.