Hi friends! Year two of celebrating the Smithsonian Heritage Months marches on. I really should have done an official type post explaining it and describing it, huh? … Ah well. We all know where intentions go, especially mine. Today beyond the Teaser Tuesday excerpt, we have a post about SBHM from Alyssa Cole.
I’m going to be honest up front with you, dear reader: I really didn’t want to write this post. I mean, I did. I think it’s important to talk about Black History Month and to recognize the contributions of African-Americans and other people of color to American society. But every time I sat down to put the words on the screen, I kept getting fidgety and annoyed and struck by the same thought…why do we still have to talk about this? I usually enjoy discussions of African-American history, but sometimes, it begins to feel the same as those weekly articles explaining that romance novels are not stupid, that they’re intelligent, feminist, and just as good as literary fiction. Those irk me because it feels like female authors have to justify writing whatever they want, specifically happy endings. In the same vein, writing this kind of post can be tiring for me. It’s a justification of my humanity, when you boil it down. Having to constantly write essays and blog posts and books that essentially say, “Hey, let me explain to you how are pretty cool and also human beings just like you.” loses its charm after a while. I’m generally a pretty cheerful person, but the fact that there are some people who could actually be enlightened by that obvious statement is depressing.
Anyway, all of that hand-wringing led to the topic at hand: Black American as an identity. (Note: as I did not vet this article at this month’s secret meeting, it is only representative of my views, not that of all or even most Black Americans.) Growing up, most of my friends were first-generation, the children of immigrants from pretty much any country you can think of (Jersey City was one of the most diverse cities in the nation at that point). As they grappled with their sense of belonging in a country where All-American was by default blonde-haired and blue-eyed, I did, too. Even though my ancestors (on my mother’s side) were slaves who plowed the land, worked the fields, and helped build the foundation of this country, I never considered myself American. That was for white people. I never thought this outright, of course. It was one of those seeds insidiously planted by TV shows and commercials, billboards and Barbie dolls. I was a voracious reader, and all the books I read that featured American kids had white protagonists—unless the book was about slavery. What did that tell me about my place in society?
I didn’t really consider myself “American” until I studied abroad in London. It’s hard to say why, as it wasn’t my first time visiting another country. Funnily enough, I chose England in an attempt to connect connect more with my Caribbean British heritage, but London was where people first referred to me as an American. It was there where people cornered me and asked me to explain why I voted for George Bush (uh, they obviously don’t know the racial generalizations about Republicans and Democrats across the pond). And it was there where I first understood: unlike inside of America itself, to people from other countries I was defined my nationality first and my skin color second. I’m not saying that England is free of racism, but I was treated so differently that I couldn’t wrap my head around it. It’s a world shaking thing to be relegated to the background in your own country, and then to travel to another country and finally be seen.
My time in England was long ago (wow, I didn’t realize how long! *starts chugging Metamucil), and as I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned a lot more about African-American history, and thus American history, than I did during the paltry excuses for Black History Month we were subjected to every year in school. It wasn’t that my teachers didn’t try; some of them did. However, back then learning about MLK, George Washington Carver, and Harriet Tubman was seen as enough. Incorporating Gwendolyn Brooks, or Jackie Joyner Kersee and her funky nail art, was going above and beyond. However, instead of making me feel more American, it seemed even more othering. “There are a couple of you who get a gold star, but you know how we feel about the rest of you,” was the underlying message.
With the advent of the internet and Google search algorithms, a trove of information that had been hard to access or flat-out hidden has become accessible to anyone willing to hit the “feeling lucky” button. Now you can learn about the Black Americans who served as laborers and joined militias made up of independent colonists during the French and Indian war in 1753. You can learn about Revolutionary War heroes besides Crispus Attucks (the first man to die in the conflict), and discover that the first actual emancipation in this country was enacted by a British royal governor of Virginia who freed the slaves of rebel Patriots as long as they were willing to fight—hundreds and hundreds of slaves flocked to him, ready to earn a freedom that should have been given without demand for payment. Black Americans fought alongside the Colonists as well, hoping that they would be remembered when liberty and justice for all was meted out.
I could go on and on about military conflicts alone (there have been exactly zero American wars/conflicts in the US that African-Americans did not participate in), about how, time and again, Black Americans were willing to sacrifice their lives for a country that enslaved them or, after the Emancipation Proclamation, subjected them to the indignities of the Klu Klux Klan, Jim Crow, and other state-sponsored terrorism. The military wasn’t really de-segregated until the Korean War, and that wasn’t very long ago in the grand scheme of things. But to talk about all those things would still be begging for a gold star in a subject that shouldn’t be decided by others: our worthiness to be considered human beings, and access to all the flaws and foibles that come with it.
Alyssa Cole is a science editor, pop culture nerd, and romance junkie who splits her time between fast-paced NYC and island-paced life in the Caribbean. Radio Silence, the first book in her post-apocalyptic New Adult series from Carina Press, will be released in February 2015. She is one of the contributing authors in the multicultural Revolutionary War romance anthology For Love & Liberty: Untold Love Stories of the American Revolution. Visit her website, on twitter at @alyssacolelit, or on facebook.
Thought provoking. What about y’all on this? Add to the discussion! (And have you read Radio Silence? There’s been a lot of buzz about it!) In fact, you can read an exclusive excerpt of it right here! Yup, Ms. Cole is double dipping today. 😛