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.