“If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say it at all,” my white grandmother used to croon to my brother and me in a sing-song-like manner. There was a didactic rhythm to the phrase and it seemed like it must be true because it held the cadence of a limerick or words constructed using iambic pentameter. Now, a full generation cycle later, the opposite of that nifty phrase is true. The era during which decency and respect in our interactions is valued over uncovering difficult truths is now coming to an end. My very own behavioral code is shifting.
Growing up in Lincoln, Rhode Island as the token black kid in various white circles and spaces, I learned the tactics of the code switch, the wearing of the mask, the performance of the person others expected me to be. It took me a long time to become aware of this armour I adorned because I didn’t know any different. Our brief, annual visits down south to visit my father’s side of the family were not enough for me to know what it meant to be black. Neither of my aunts are married or have children and my living uncle with daughters a few years younger than me was incarcerated. I didn’t know any other black kids or mixed kids to share confusing experiences of discrimination with and relate to in certain contexts, which meant that in high school, I didn’t need the Students of Color meetings. When I headed off to the University of Pittsburgh as a freshman member of the Swimming and Diving team in 2006 and the other black girl on the team gave me the nod and shared her relief that there was another black person on the team, I didn’t understand how we needed to stick together. This was during my B.B. period, “Before Black.” Twelve years later I’m so black there is no turning back. I am now deep into my A.B. period, “After Black.”
I will write a book on the experience of recognizing what it means to be black after growing up white, but for now, I can inform you that it was agonizing, frightening, and infuriating. Without other friends who looked like me or shared my ethnic background with whom to discuss and affirm my experience, I cozied up underneath a thick, heavy blanket of depression and surrendered to the forces of the double oppression of being a black woman in America.
Recently, my revelation has been that I am angry and that my depression is a direct outcome of suppressing that anger. So in the spirit of self-expression that is so dominant today in 2018 and on the first day of this year’s Black History Month, I would like to do a better job of sharing my anger constructively so that I may potentially bridge the gap between white and black, between ignorant and woke, and between apathy and compassion in this country.
I have a part-time job as an evening librarian at a New England Prep School in the southern coastal region of Massachusetts. The job is very relaxed; the primary duties are to provide students with the books and resources they need for their classes and to maintain an atmosphere of calm and focused productivity. The school is one whose graduates will go on to study at Ivy League and prestigious private colleges throughout the country. Tuition is one hundred dollars shy of $60,000 each year for boarders and $43,000 for day students. Over one third of students receive financial aid and the student body is made up of about 20 percent international students. All this to say that the culture of white privilege is dominant at this particular institution.
The library director makes an incredible effort to engage students in reading and books with extravagantly decorated and interactive displays. Currently, there is a Harry Potter sorting hat display at the entrance and a life-size Black Panther movie cardboard cut-out and comic book display behind the circulation desk. New, interesting, and diverse books are coming into the library constantly that are appropriate for both kids and adults. I owe a lot of credit to this environment that I work in twice a week for my recommitment to reading in the Golden Age of streaming television.
Yesterday, I went into the library and got myself situated for the evening with my copy of We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-nehisi Coates and my travel mug of hot water and honey. One of the two white librarians at the circulation desk swivels her chair around and tells me that they, the library staff, have a question for me. I am intrigued, yet sometimes as a person of color, you can detect where the white inquisitor might be headed with their tone and attention, typically focused elsewhere, yet suddenly on this day (the day before Black History month begins) is focused on you. I brace myself.
She expressed to me that the library director had come across an internet hashtag about how black history is everybody’s history and how they were thinking of expanding the theme. Instead of only focusing on black history, they wanted to be more inclusive and accessible to the student body. They both stared at me through their white people eyes, waiting for my reaction. I asked them what their question was.
The white male librarian brought me over to the collection of books they had conjured up to make Black History Month more inclusive. I saw Eyewitness to America: 500 Years of American History in the Words of Those Who Saw It Happen by the white male David Colbert with an image of George Washington on the front. I saw A People’s History of the United States by the white male Howard Zinn. There was the The Summer of 1787 by the white male David O. Stewart with an image of the founding fathers on the cover and a copy of Killing Lincoln: The Shocking Assassination that Changed America Forever written by the white males, Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard, with Abraham Lincoln on the front. The female librarian told me they wanted to have something on the displays besides the same old Martin Luther King and Malcolm X books, something the students will be interested to pull off the shelves.
I couldn’t believe it. It’s one thing to decide to include my opinion in the creative direction of the Black History Month display because I am the resident black person on the staff. It is one thing to want to diversify the scope of black history and divert from the singular narrative that we grow up with in school. But to include books written by white men with white men on the covers in a display for Black History Month at a school with only a handful of black students in attendance was to reveal the depth of ignorance in our present-day society of the challenges that black people face, particularly in the realm of visibility and image.
I raged. I took a deep breath. I suppressed my emotion and spoke slowly, thoughtfully, and deliberately. I said that I look forward to Black History Month as the one time of year when it comes into the focus of mainstream society. I said that if the library wants to put together a display about “everybody’s history,” in March, feel free. I said that if I am a black student here at the school and see books with white people on the covers during Black History Month that I’m going to be offended. But to include white people during Black History Month felt an awful lot like the “All Lives Matter” sentiment. I saw a barely visible acknowledgment of fear in her backtracking, claiming that she didn’t mean it that way. She defended herself by continuing to explain where she was coming from in reference to this internet hashtag and repeating that “colored people’s history” was only a part of “American history.” Though she is white, she is from a European country and not American so I let the “colored people” utterance slide.
I vetoed half of the books they had chosen for the display and immediately began searching for books in the stacks that I found appropriate for Black History Month. I spent the rest of the shift collecting as whole a narrative as I could of what this library had on black history. Everything from W.E.B. DuBois’ Souls of Black Folk to books on Ferguson, to March, the graphic novel series inspired by Congressman John Lewis. I printed out an article from the periodical Black Perspectives entitled “The Historical Erasure of Violence Against Black Women” written by Denise Lynn and included a sticky note on how the article will help us understand why we don’t have more books written about black women as a part of our country’s catalogue of black history. I printed out a PDF of “An End to the Neglect of the Problems of the Negro Woman!” by Claudia Jones.
For me, the issues do not lie in the fact that slavery happened and that the structure of our society has been built off of the mentality of a system like slavery. It is that we are so quick to defend ourselves and so blind to the oppression that black people face both blatantly and systemically everyday that we act as though it does not exist. That lack of affirmation has left a deep cut in my sense of identity and I am still building up scar tissue. It was none of these white librarians’ fault that they nearly denied the few black kids’ sense of self at this very white privileged school but it would have been my fault if I had let it happen.
I went to the gym after my shift ended to try to release some of the searing aggression I had built up inside up of me over the evening. After my workout, I breathed in the cold, winter air into my lungs and the campus covered in a blanket of white snow was silent, save for the American flag, waving around in the wind, the metal parts of the flag pole banging into itself and ringing its presence into the night, loud and clear.