Sunday, January 27, 2008

Toward Black History Month

As we head toward Black History Month, let's break out some determined optimism and envisage this century as the one in which the U.S. finally gets--in the parlance of the 1960s--its shit together with regard to race in general and, at long last, full African American citizenship in particular, not to mention poverty, health-care, education, and a foreign policy that looks vaguely sane. Let's also hope the horrors of war, famine, and displacement in some parts of the African continent will vanish soon.

One of James Baldwin's favorite words to describe the American dilemma of "race" was "conundrum": a kind of insoluble riddle. I think he might have looked at the events surrounding the Jena Six, juxtaposed against the candidacy of Barack Obama (and his primary-victory in S.C., with 25% of the white Democratic vote), as a conundrum. Is there progress or not? That is and always has been the question; yes and no have always been the answer.

I'm a spectator on a listserv (that word bugs me) on which "progressives" chat, and a while back several of the participants allowed as how they'd given up hope on the U.S. I decided to respond, and I wrote that if African Americans haven't given up, why should any of us? Who's had it worse than they? An African American colleague wrote an email (outside the list) to me and thanked me for making that point. I appreciated the thanks, but let's be real: the point was--or should have been--painfully obvious. White progressives, and white conservatives, for that matter, get a bit whiny. "Nobody knows the trouble they've seen": yeah, right.

And as we head--one hopes with optimism--into another Black History Month, let's appreciate some mighty fine literature, including Lerone Bennett's history, Before the Mayflower; James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time, which includes some of the best extended American essays ever written; the well known but still under-valued poetry, prose, drama (etc.) of Langston Hughes; the masterpieces in fiction of James Weldon Johnson, Richard Wright, Ann Petry, Ralph Ellison, Alice Walker, and Toni Morrison; and more recent poetry by Rita Dove, Nikki Giovanni, Sonya Sanchez, Audre Lorde, Amiri and Ras Baraka, Robert Hayden, Lucille Clifton, Gil Scott Heron, Natasha Trethewey--and so many more.

And since, in the words of Langston Hughes, we're "still here," let's use our time wisely (my first-grade teacher liked that phrase) and do some good. It couldn't hurt. Optimism is foolish, but it's the right kind of foolishness. In first grade, I received an "S," as opposed to a "U," next to "uses time wisely," so I have some history going for me. Peace be with you.
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