I have a confession.
I love chicken. Fry it, de-bone it, marinate it (then fry it), BBQ it, mambo sauce it, smother it – I will appreciate it in all its forms.
I may or may not even hit a u-turn in the streets if I pass by a Popeyes, Church’s or Bonjangles’.
Despite the temptation to do so, however, this in no way clears the air for anyone to incorporate chicken into my history as a black man.
Every year in February, it never fails that a story comes out about insensitivity or ignorance during black history month.
The biggest story this week has been the private school Carondelet High School for Girls, where they decided to have a lunch of fried chicken and watermelon in honor of black history month. Again, don’t get me wrong. My plate will be in receive mode any time there is watermelon to be had. But, black history month is not the time to call watermelon a special delicacy that somehow celebrates black people’s culture.
It amazes me that this is such a hard concept for people to grasp year after year – you don’t go making stereotypes the thing you actually decide to embrace about a people.
Incidents like this are a reflection of one of two things: obstinacy or ignorance.
For those obstinate people in society, slip-ups like this are…not exactly slip-ups. They are intentional manifestations of an ambivalence toward getting to know someone who is not the same as them. It is an easy way out. Black History Month is an opportunity to educate oneself; its not just 28 days (plus one in a leap year) where black folks get to be proud and vocal about the accomplishments of other black people.
Black History is AMERICAN history, yet obstinate folks miss the opportunity to step outside of their own understanding, and instead choose to pull their own limited knowledge over their eyes like a warm blanket. Obstinate folks are resistant to anything that will change them or shift their world view – and so, the tough reality is, as long as obstinacy exists out there when there is a conversation to be had about race, we will probably always hear a story line that is similar to this.
But for Carondelet, I’d like to believe it was an oversight due to ignorance. Especially given that the effort to honor black history month in this way was student-led. The ignorant person may have some inclination that this could all end badly, but allows themselves to be persuaded to push the warning to the recesses of their mind. In today’s information age, however, ignorance is not really an excuse…at any age. Google “black history month”, “watermelon” and “chicken,” and you will likely see all these missteps in your first ten Google results.
And once you see that a menu full of stereotypical foods has not gone over so well…ever…maybe that person will take a step back and think….what really comprises black history and black culture in America?
Perhaps its the long line of educators, journalists, politicians, legal minds, musicians, artists, scientists, and inventors that have contributed to the fabric of American history with their accomplishments. Or maybe it is the countless musical styles that have evolved from the Negro spiritual that has become so interwoven into our daily popular culture. Speaking of music, maybe black culture is the acknowledgement of self-expression in our community and the sub-cultures created from that (hip-hop culture anyone?) Or perhaps, its confronting the ugly reality that black culture is a culture of survival. Whether it has been learning how to survive in the face of slavery, segregation, inequality, or marginalization, African American culture has been influenced by facing inequitable circumstances and finding a way to overcome. It is crazy to think that slavery, oppression, and marginalization did not influence the “black culture” in America; however, for all the negative that came with those points in history, black culture established its roots in “overcoming”.
Basically, black culture and black history is complex. And until the obstinate and the ignorant recognize this, then the most that black history will ever see is 28 days, a couple of acknowledgements of inspirational moments in history, and a plate of chicken with hot sauce on the side.
And the larger tragedy? People will likely still get a pass on future instances like this by simply claiming ignorance, apologizing, and waiting for March 1 to roll around so everyone can stop being so sensitive.