Monday, February 23, 2009

Jim Crow Renaissance This Is Celebration?

I am starting to be thankful that February is the shortest month of the year.  I don’t think I could take anymore “joyful” celebrations of black history month.  I have already dealt with commodification and the award winning dress up like a slave day. It seems that some continue to view black history month as a race to the bottom.  In the guise of celebration they have decided that a recreation of the humiliation lived by blacks is the best way to document achievement.

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Albright College decided to celebrate by posting signs on drinking fountains and at the two dining hall entrances  designating which was for whites and which was for coloreds

Organizer Stephanie Michel, a junior of Afro-Caribbean descent, said she and other committee members wanted to mark Black History Month in an interactive way. The segregation exercise was a way to show far America has come.

The signs were not enforced and were to simply serve as a reminder of Jim Crow segregation.  While I fully support making everyone aware of exactly the horrors and restrictions that Blacks of the African Diaspora were forced to live through, symbolic gestures are a mockery on the starkness of the pain that was the everyday existence of our ancestors.   We will never know what it was like to drink from a coloured fountain because that was our only option, or be served at the back of a restaurant, or forced to pee in a cup because there were no coloured bathrooms.  You simply cannot recreate the humiliation involved by posting a few signs that no one is obligated to follow.  It is an insult.

By presenting this as a celebration of look how far we have come, we fail to focus on the ways in which race still continues to play a pivotal role in who has access to power in this society.  White women are still clutching their purses in the presence of black men, we are still largely portrayed as prostitutes and criminals in the media, black men are over represented in the prison population and the military,  blacks still overwhelming live in poverty and are dying of HIV/AIDS in record numbers.  All we are today is a reflection of everything that we have lived through and now is not the time to sing Michael Row The Boat Ashore when we still reside in a racist, sexist, patriarchal state determined that we remain second class citizens.

Another committee member, sophomore Amanda B. Irizarry, said the signs were meant to make students think about a time when public places were segregated.

Where is this woman living that she does not think that people don’t know what it is like to see a segregated neighbourhood? White flight ensured that the poorest areas of the country are black.  A young man was shot in his own driveway in January because the cops didn’t believe a black man lived in a white upper class neighbourhood.  While segregation is no longer legally enforced economics make sure that a division between white and black continue to exist. 

"It's just so people can see it and say, 'Wow,' " said Irizarry, a Philadelphia native of Puerto Rican descent. "We're not trying to stay in the past."

No, they are just determined not to make the connection between the past and today.  Yes things have changed but many of the same circumstances still exist enforced by economics rather than by law.  Brown vs Education was in 1954 and there are still schools that are largely made up of black and latin@ students.  Sure it is no longer legal to bar a child from attending a certain school, but if all of the white people move out of a neighbourhood for fear of violence and a decline in property value, of course the schools are going to be largely populated by minorities. This also translates into less funding for minority schools as each school is only able to access the property taxes paid in the their district.

People need to know the past to understand the ways in which we have not progressed.  They need to know the past to make connections with today.  We don’t need false assurances that we are living the good life today.  This comparative mode of thought lets whiteness off the hook for the ways in which it continues to benefit from unearned privilege.  If we must go through the farce of pretending to celebrate the people of the African Diaspora every February, can we at least pretend to show a modicum of respect for the people and the history?

H/T Resist Racism


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