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Black History Month 2019 has been a downer for black folks

Ralph Northam

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, who denied being in a picture that showed a man in blackface and another in a KKK hood. The picture appeared on his medical school yearbook page. | AP photo

One of my favorite Black History Month memories took place at my aunt’s house 10 years ago. She hosted a party with a bunch of her girlfriends — most of them retired Chicago Public Schools principals, administrators and teachers — and let me and my out-of-town girls crash it. She whipped up a soul food dinner on a Saturday night: fried chicken, greens, corn pudding and chitterlings. My mother administered a black history quiz. To cap the night off, my aunt hired one of her friends to teach the ladies the latest line dances.

The night pretty much hit peak blackness. The only thing missing was the classic South Side wood paneling on her lower level, typical for a basement party.

OPINION

We are nearing the end of Black History Month 2019, and this year’s been a downer for black folks. By the time you finish reading this column, another inane racist controversy will pop up for Black Twitter to handle.

Thus far, we’ve seen the following: Two viable black presidential candidates had their blackness, not policies, questioned. We also have the governor of Virginia, who wore either blackface or a Ku Klux Klan hood when he was 25 years old — but then again, maybe he didn’t. His story changed. But Gov. Ralph Northam did admit he wore dark shoe polish that was too hard to wipe off, for a Michael Jackson impersonation. Apparently flood pants or a glittery silver glove weren’t good enough for a costume.

Then Virginia’s attorney general copped to wearing blackface. Then actor Liam Neeson revealed that he fantasized about murdering a black person — any random black person — as revenge for a friend’s rape. In the fashion world, luxury designer Gucci put out a high-necked black sweater with bulging red lips, like a blackface mask yearning for a slice of watermelon.

Did I miss any other trash this February? Probably.

It’s ironic these incidents happened in a year that is a milestone for black history. Four hundred years ago, in 1619, kidnapped Africans arrived on the shores of Virginia, marking the beginning of U.S. slavery. One hundred years ago, in 1919, race riots erupted in Chicago after a black teenager swam in what whites declared as their segregated waters of Lake Michigan.

Chicago’s South Side is where Carter G. Woodson, the father of Black History Month, laid down roots for the observance more than 100 years ago. At the time, Woodson sought to spread black history to the masses, to fight the perception back then that Negroes had no history. It’s speculated that Woodson’s effort was in response to the racist movie “The Birth of a Nation.”  

For this South Sider, living and growing up in an environment that celebrated blackness didn’t mean we ignored the month. One year, we spent every Sunday in February watching episodes of “Roots” with family friends, then feasted afterward. It’s during this month that I probably learned Chicago native Useni Eugene Perkins’ poem “Hey Black Child” for an assembly.

Now, every year, I aspire to do something extra-special for Black History Month, like hosting a party, salon or family gathering. My regular life is steeped in black history, but I like to acknowledge the importance of February.  

This year, the month has been less about lauding achievements and paying tribute to black Americans. We should be reveling in black culture and history. But instead, we are explaining what’s racist, being asked to forgive and defending our existence. It’s exhausting.

And for too many white Americans, racism is relegated solely to a KKK robe in the closet or saying the “n-word.” Part of my disgust with the Northam discussion is that it focused on white supremacy as a costume, not on policies that perpetuate racism, inequality and a host of disparate outcomes for black people.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t hold the governor accountable. What I’m saying is that white America, collectively, needs to stop patting itself on the back as anti-racist if racism is only understood as a KKK affiliation.

In the waning days of Black History Month, I once again didn’t make time to host a party. I’ll aspire again next year, hopefully without having to explain race relations, and just celebrate excellence instead.

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