The cognitive dissonance of Black History Month

Entering Black History Month this year, the words that come to mind are cognitive dissonance.

On the surface, it appears as if Black people in the United States have come a long way. We had a Black president, our current vice president is Black—hell, she’s an HBCU grad and a member of one of the oldest Black sororities. Progressive white folks love to let us know that they believe Black Lives Matter and social media is overloaded with Black imagery and what acts of support that feel increasingly performative rather than substantive and productive. 

So, there’s the appearance. What about the reality?

We are living in a time when it is clear—for anyone who can get a week’s worth of solid sleep and a few minutes alone to think—that facism is on the rise and anti-Blackness is only growing in this country. 

Lest you think I am being dramatic, did you know that on the first day of Black History Month, the College Board—after receiving pushback from Florida governor Ron DeSantis—decided to strip down much of its curriculum for the Advanced Placement African American studies courses? Elected officials in Florida felt that the course was historically inaccurate and, as a result, the course has been stripped of the names of many Black writers and scholars, the queer experience, and Black feminists. It also was decided that the Black Lives Matter movement wasn’t appropriate subject matter. 

So, Black history without a really huge chunk of the actual Black experience.

Anything considered “political” was scrapped, though what remains of the revised 234-page curriculum framework ranges widely through content on Africa, slavery, reconstruction, and the civil rights movement. And there is content on redlining, discrimination and afrofuturism, as well as stories of individual achievement and heroism. 

That’s nice, except that Blackness in America is political. To live in a Black body is to be a political statement, whether you want to or not. The history of Black people in the United States is a political one, as well as an economic one. Were not our descendents the literal currency that helped build this country’s wealth

The thing is: Sure, Ron DeSantis a cretin. But his efforts in Florida now will affect students across the country. Of course, the same board that decided that Blackness is too political offers a number of other courses on various cultures. Got bias? 

If this wasn’t horrific enough, teachers in several Florida counties have had to empty their classroom bookshelves due to Florida House Bill 1467, which took effect as law in July. It mandates that schools’ books be age-appropriate, free from pornography, and “suited to student needs.” Books must be approved by a qualified school media specialist, who must undergo a state retraining on book collections. The new law comes atop an older one that makes distributing “harmful materials” to minors, including obscene, and pornographic materials—a third-degree felony—meaning that a teacher could face up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine.

But this notion of “pornography” in particular seems defined pretty loosely. They aren’t after pornography. They are after anything that teaches kids about their bodies or encourages them to be themselves or acknowledges families that aren’t cis-gendered. Stuff like that. Because we live in a world where cis-het white people literally groom kids and teens all the time (in church, at home, through beauty pageants, etc.) and abuse them sexually and people accept it, but somehow drag queens are groomers for simply existing and sometimes reading storybooks to kids.

Due to a boatload of uncertainty, teachers are opting to just empty their shelves, and who could blame them? I mean teaching is already a thankless job. Teachers are overworked, underpaid, and blamed for everything. If it wasn’t enough to risk your life in a classroom with COVID still running rampant in schools, or at least enough that my teacher friends talk of multiple infections, now you have to worry that the books on your shelves in the classroom could land you in a jail cell. Books, people! Books. 

Never mind that in many places in this country, getting to the statehouse doesn’t require anything other than time, a few bucks, and some drive. In Florida, you only need to be 21, a resident of the district that you are running for, and have been a Florida resident for two years. You don’t need a degree, or any particular experience but once elected, you are able to be a part of a body that makes life decisions for everyone. In a country that regulates haircuts and who can legally give them, we might want to revisit the idea of who gets to serve in public office. Given the direction of the US Supreme Court, local statehouses have a lot of power to determine your fate—hell, whether or not a kid can read a perfectly harmless book in a classroom. 

It seems that the late, great George Carlin was onto something when he said this many years ago: “They don’t want a population of citizens capable of critical thinking. They don’t want well informed, well educated people capable of critical thinking. They’re not interested in that. That doesn’t help them. That’s against their interests. That’s right. They don’t want people who are smart enough to sit around a kitchen table to figure out how badly they’re getting fucked by a system that threw them overboard 30 fucking years ago. They don’t want that. You know what they want? They want obedient workers. Obedient workers.” 

The thing is, we are just about there and most of us aren’t even aware of it. Many will shake their heads at the fascism coming out of Florida, pledge to avoid Florida, and assume that none of this nastiness will touch them. Have you not noticed in the last 20-some odd years that a lot of stuff out of Florida eventually touches all of our lives? I mean, do I need to remind you of Trump? Hanging chads? Even Florida’s approach to COVID eventually became our national standard. And if you think there’s no chance in hell that DeSantis won’t run for president and have a shot at winning, you aren’t paying enough attention. 

I fear that the left, the progressives, and those of us still capable of thinking have a tendency to overthink our way out of sustained action. Or, we are too tired. I mean, these are tiring times that we are living in, and while it’s popular to expound that rest is resistance, I’m sorry—but we can’t all be resting right now. In fact, the country and world that our children and grandchildren will inherit actually depends on us doing something now to ensure that full on fascism is not the law by the time they are our age.

There are a number of academics and others who believe the United States is sliding towards competitive authoritarianism, and whether that is true or not, democracy in this country is on the decline

Look, I imagine this isn’t quite the post you were hoping to read for Black History Month. There is no celebratory tone, but as a middle-aged Black woman, living in a world of ever-increasing anti-Blackness, it is dangerous to not assess the landscape and read the room, especially in light of the last several years.

The midterm elections weren’t too bad, all things considered, but remember Roe v. Wade? Not many wanted to consider the possibility that it could be overturned, and well, we see how that turned out. Except that Black activists in the South had been preparing for years for the possibility that it could be reversed.

What I’m saying is this: If listening to Black women is more than a nifty slogan to you, I strongly suggest you spend this Black History and beyond formulating an action plan and gathering a local community to pushback when the anti-Blackness and creeping fascism land in your community and on your doorstep. 

I live in Maine, a fairly solidly Democratic state, and still, there are ripples of folks who are more than happy to follow Florida’s lead. Lest we not forget, this past fall and current winter have seen an uptick in white nationalist and fascist behavior throughout all of New England. No state or region is immune. Even in Maine, we have people trying to set up a white ethnostate community. This stuff is all around us, and it simply is not acceptable to “tsk, tsk” it away. They are hard at work, taking action and making plans.  My plea for you is start thinking about concrete sustainable actions you can take in your community, and don’t rule out public office either. We need people with an anti-racist framework in political spaces.

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Image by Abishek via Unsplash