The Month of Love

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A cou­ple of days ago, while surf­ing the net, I came upon a blog post that referred to Feb­ru­ary as the month of love. That state­ment reignit­ed an old mem­o­ry that I thought I might share.

I attend­ed a major uni­ver­si­ty in New Eng­land, where I grew up. I lived in the dorm on an all girls floor. Each month our TA would dec­o­rate the bul­letin board with the theme of her choos­ing. Quite nat­u­ral­ly, that Feb­ru­ary, I think the year was 1989, she chose the theme of Valentine’s Day. A stu­dent like the rest of us, I think she did a rush job, some­thing that required lit­tle thought or effort. She cov­ered the entire announce­ment board with pink con­struc­tion paper, tied a thread of yarn around a Sharpie, and tacked it to the board. Sten­ciled across the top in red let­ters was the ques­tion, What would you like dur­ing this month of love? Write your answer.

More than forty girls lived on my floor, so you can imag­ine the kinds of things that were writ­ten on the board over the next cou­ple of days; every­thing from choco­lates and ted­dy bears, to a dia­mond engage­ment ring from my boyfriend, to things too lewd to repeat, to things that had absolute­ly noth­ing at all to do with Valentine’s Day or love. I wrote that I would like to have a Black His­to­ry Month board instead, as Valentine’s is only a day­long event.

Did I men­tion that I was the only African-Amer­i­can liv­ing on my floor?

Who would have thought that my sug­ges­tion would be the start of a firestorm? Not me. Actu­al­ly, that’s not true. I pret­ty much expect­ed the firestorm. Overnight a few real­ly ugly com­ments cropped up on the board. Go back to Africa. Get a life. We don’t want to learn about black his­to­ry. I received quite a few ugly looks and some peo­ple stopped speak­ing to me alto­geth­er. The mil­i­tant that I was took this all as a chal­lenge but I nev­er had a chance to write a response. A huge meet­ing was called and every­one was admon­ished for their shame­ful behav­ior. I say every­one, because we nev­er knew who wrote what at that point. Racists rarely are brave enough to do their dirt in the light of day.

I think that the TA was a bit embar­rassed. I think it like­ly nev­er even occurred to her to do a Black His­to­ry Month board. The day after the big meet­ing, the Valentine’s Day board was removed. Our TA, a girl in her very ear­ly twen­ties, from New Eng­land, like­ly had lit­tle real expo­sure to peo­ple of col­or. What did she know about Black His­to­ry or why it might be impor­tant to include that on the board…to even give it a thought? Was she total­ly respon­si­ble for the over­sight? More than twen­ty years lat­er, with a lot more expe­ri­ence and insight, I am able to ask these ques­tions, to give her a break for not know­ing, for not think­ing it was even impor­tant to know, because I am not so angry and don’t feel as exclud­ed as I did then. Times and peo­ple change.

The TA, I can’t recall her name for the life of me, did a brave thing. I ran into her about two or three days lat­er at the Afro-Amer­i­can Cul­tur­al Cen­ter on cam­pus. She want­ed to use our library, and she asked me to help her find some inter­est­ing lit­tle known facts about black his­to­ry to post on the board. In the end she learned some­thing, and so did I. I learned that not every­one with white skin was an ene­my or want­ed to be non-inclu­sive. I learned that some peo­ple real­ly do care if you give them a chance. She learned some inter­est­ing facts about the strug­gles of peo­ple of col­or in this coun­try and their con­tri­bu­tions to the greater good of us all, regard­less of eth­nic­i­ty, of ori­gins, of reli­gion.

In the end, for me any­way, Feb­ru­ary did end up being the month of love. I had to love her for being open and will­ing to try, and for refus­ing to lis­ten the peo­ple who told her to ignore the sit­u­a­tion and me and my request. By help­ing her learn, I devel­oped an increased appre­ci­a­tion and love of myself and cul­ture which is a dis­tinct­ly Amer­i­can amal­ga­ma­tion, and she did too.

  • For most of Amer­i­ca, white protes­tant cul­ture is still the default, so unless some­one lives or works with peo­ple of oth­er races, reli­gions and cul­tures, noth­ing but the default shows up on the radar. Much of the time, it’s just lazi­ness, not ill intent. Some­times too, there is a lot of sec­ond-guess­ing that can lead to a sort of paral­y­sis. “If I say some­thing pos­i­tive about African-Amer­i­cans, will she think I’m doing it to prove I’m not racist? Maybe I should say noth­ing, but if I do that, will that make me look more racist than if…”

    It’s easy to over­think one­self into a tizzy.

    I hon­est­ly believe that if Amer­i­ca doesn’t fall apart eco­nom­i­cal­ly we’ll be close to see­ing racial and eth­nic dis­tinc­tions become a non-issue in anoth­er fifty years, except per­haps in the hin­ter­lands. It’s incred­i­bly com­mon to see peo­ple of dif­fer­ent races hang­ing out at my uni­ver­si­ty as friends — both stu­dents and staff. I work at one of the most diverse cam­pus­es in the coun­try, so we’re prob­a­bly ahead of many oth­er places, but I can’t imag­ine we’re advanced by all that much. If noth­ing hap­pens to pit every­one against each oth­er, we’ll con­nect more and more on our sim­i­lar­i­ties and not pay much mind to our dif­fer­ences.

    Sev­er­al years ago an issue in my depart­ment caused us all to have to take a diver­si­ty work­shop. Most of us were very annoyed, since the inci­dent had to do with someone’s claim of a men­tal health dis­crim­i­na­tion issue but the work­shop itself was about race and gen­der, go fig­ure. At one point one of the work­shop lead­ers asked my friend and fel­low man­ag­er Bren­da if she pre­ferred to be called Black or African-Amer­i­can. The ques­tion was sup­posed to illus­trate the need for sen­si­tiv­i­ty in how we describe each oth­er, but Bren­da was caught off guard. See­ing she was flus­tered, I told the work­shop leader, “She prefers to be called Bren­da.”

    Hope­ful­ly some­day we’ll all be just our­selves and our her­itage will be a fun thing we can all share in. If we can all be Irish on St Patrick’s Day, can we not all be African-Amer­i­can on June­teenth and Mex­i­can on Cin­co de Mayo? Maybe a day will come when we’ll all see each oth­ers’ past as our own.

    • Hi there Ann. Thanks for stop­ping by. I agree about what our default cul­ture is. While it still annoys me that in such a multiethnic/cultural coun­try this is still that case, I do have hopes that the gen­er­a­tions fol­low­ing me are dif­fer­ent. My son, who is twen­ty, is the kind of young man upon who I pin these hopes. He attends uni­ver­si­ty on the same mixed cam­pus, is often mis­tak­en for being part Asian (I dun­no), has friends of every cul­tur­al iden­ti­ty, likes it, and is pos­i­tive­ly col­ored (my lit­tle play on words) by that expe­ri­ence. We are get­ting bet­ter at this.
      Echo­ing your con­cerns though, I fear that an eco­nom­ic dis­as­ter can become the new “racism”. Clas­sism is replac­ing racism, but all we need is a dis­as­ter, I think, to cre­ate new “sides”. It scares me.
      I think that all cul­tur­al expe­ri­ences are good/valid/and worth know­ing about and respect­ing.