Wednesday, February 22, 2006

black history month

You know, when I was in lower skool, Black History Month was a thing. There were bulletin boards, there were projects, there were movies shown and weighty topics discussed. For example, I remember in fifth grade, my really incredible teacher Mrs. Zagone -- and now I have to pause to explain that Mrs. Zagone was awesome in part because she took us, her students, seriously. As human beings. When we had a question, she answered it. One answer stuck with me like a sunburn: someone asked, What does an orgasm feel like? And Mrs. Zagone said, It's like when you really really really want to sneeze, and then you do.

God bless that woman. But we were talking about race. Mrs. Zagone led us ten year olds in exercises that February imagining we were enslaved. She made us put ourselves in that position and then write essays about how we felt. Would we try to stick it out? Would we try to escape? When I pointed out that there was no way we could know, that of course we'd like to think we'd be braver than brave, but we didn't grow up in that world, beaten down from day one, she made me read my essay to the class.

The popular kids, by the way, never gave me shit for being "smart." I was never made fun of, not once, and believe me, loquaciousness aside, if you saw pictures of my crazy hair, my sweaters and leggings, you'd know they had just cause. Mrs. Zagone also fostered an atmosphere where being smart was good, where people wanted to be smart.

But we were talking about race! My point, initially, was there aren't bulletin boards anymore. February, I'm allowed to forget it's Black History Month, and so are you, unless you're still in lower school (in which case, what the hell are you doing reading this? And, if you have questions about orgasms, feel free to email.) I've read Angry Black Bitch on occasion and found her direct and intelligent. But I haven't put her on the blogroll til now. Why?

She's not going on the blogroll because of Black History Month, except to the degree that Black History Month finally and incidentally kicked my ass into gear. (And SHE isn't really the point here, anyway, which I trust you understand.) I'm tired of feeling scared of black people. It's exhausting. At college, I took a class from a brilliant black powerhouse of a professor. I attended, I did the reading, I wrote the papers, I talked with her outside of class, I got a good grade, I liked her and she liked me, and I was still scared to death of her!

I assistant-directed a production of For Colored Girls Who Have Committed Suicide .... I was the only white girl involved and my method of blending in consisted, largely, of being as small and unobtrusive presence as possible. The cast gradually did forget I was there, or that I was an outsider, or something: more and more, they talked freely, at a couple points making of people I knew, even making fun of Jews. I said nothing. At the time it felt like an important growth sort of thing, and it was, but in the long run, it didn't really help.

I've learned enough history and media history to know this is a deep-rooted societal problem. But how do you frikkin fix it? Even my leftiest lefty friends (all caucasian) don't have close black friends, or if they do, those friends are queer. I don't know a single black-white interracial couple. Is it progress enough for both groups to simply respect each other, interact sometimes and generally leave each other alone? What if that's just a mask for the deep-rooted fear we don't want to deal with?

Clearly, I don't have any answers. I just thought, for the sake of Black History Month, I should bring it up. Face up to it, and say, you know, that I am afraid that an average black person would dislike or resent me, and that makes me defensive as well as more afraid. And it's not good for anyone.


yami mcmoots said...

Even my leftiest lefty friends (all caucasian) don't have close black friends, or if they do, those friends are queer.

So their queerness makes them less black, or something? Or are you trying to say that the queer community is better about racial issues? I'm confused.

ester said...

why would it make them less black? why would i be the arbiter of that? no, that's not what i meant at all - i think their queerness served as a kind of bridge, or maybe it just made them seem less threatening. or both, i don't know.

yami mcmoots said...

I didn't think you did, I just couldn't figure out what you were getting at. Thanks for clarifying :)

sarah said...

ugh, i hate this conundrum. i'm asian and still most of my friends are white/asian (west & east)/hispanic. i have exactly one black friend. it's so silly on the one hand to be like, "hey, i must fulfill my quota of having a well-rounded group of friends" but on the other hand it really is a problem. i don't know, i never met a black person until i went to college so i think this bothers me even more than it bothers other people. blah it's so depressing.

src said...

hey, where'd the poem go? i liked it. i really liked this post. that's all i have to say right now.

Dina Zwiebel said...


I didn't remember that Mrs. Zagone did all of those wonderful things. I'm ashamed to admit that my most vivid memories of her include when she took us bowling if we aced enough spelling quizzes (and received five gold stars in a row) and when my parents won an afternoon with her in the JDS lower school auction and I went to see Aladdin with her and then ate at the Montgomery Mall food court.

I know there are a lot more important issues that your entry brings up but I choose not to touch on any of them. Instead, I will take this opportunity to admit that I've been a lurker on your blog for some time and enjoy it immensely. I love getting updates on your life and love to relate.

One more Zagone memory before I go: Michael Packer was eating a cherry popsicle when it dripped and fell onto his pants. What did he do when everyone whooped and yelled that he got his period? What any boy would do: he cried.

Oh I'm mean with those memories.

ester said...

dina! the "fudge" packer / red popsicle incident is of course the FIRST Mrs. Zagone related story that comes to mind. that's one for the ages.

remember when you and i refigured the lyrics to some song to make them about Mrs. Zagone? and then showed her the tape of us singing the song and dancing to it?

anyway it's nice to hear from you again. i heart ghosts. :-)

Poeticshah said...

In response to something you wrote a while black - about black history month:

I recently learned that the major split between the white and black folk in the U.S. began with slave owners propagating hatred amongst them...

The poor whites and blacks in the early colonial days had a natural affinity for one another and as a result poor whites were posing as slave masters and helping black slaves escape. Moreover many of these interracial friendships were also bearing children and this posed a problem for the slave masters. The children were not necessarily born into slavery because: 1) the child was fathered or mothered by a free person and 2)since it had white blood and with the church heavily frowning on enslavement of anyone who could be Christan (a half white baby) - enslaving the mixed child was taboo.

So to remedy these losses on there investments - the slave owners began a vicious campaign of propaganda to divide the poor whites and blacks.

Same went with dividing the poor whites and blacks from the indigenous tribes (natives.)

This nurtured hatred was a capitalistic tool and still is. In order to best exploit a people; societies; nations - divide the people and nurture hatred and thus you have your legitimization if/when you cause havoc on them.
i.e. colonialism; slavery; neocolonialism/ imperialism; neoliberalization...

Was it not the British who bragged how their empire was so big that the sun never set on it? How do you think they legitimized colonizing half the world's population? They plundered; murdered; raped and were able to brag about it even though they had moral accountability to their own populace and the world. They simply convinced their population that they were doing this to a lesser people and they were benefiting them by virtually enslaving them. Hatred/ Racism was the key tool in this madness.

After the "emancipation" - whites often lashed out against blacks because they thought they were the cause of their poverty. The propaganda program continued in full force for more than century afterwards. All the way up to the debates in recent decades about the welfare state. Racism/ Hatred is deeply rooted in the average person's psych.

Hatred is rooted in ignorance or at best its a method out of a lack of a better one to enfranchise people. Fear of other races is a direct result of this and the historical programs of propaganda.

The division you speak about is much deeper than the superficial - "why can't we all just get along."

The solution lays in non-violence and equality. People being educated and coming to better understandings of the world around them will naturally bring harmony.

Good Luck and Peace.