By Ellen Snortland
Black History Month is very important — especially for white people with a history like mine. Growing up in Colorado and South Dakota, I barely knew that Black people existed. The first Black person I met was an African man who brought slides of his country. He was the product of a missionary education… and he was gorgeous. For a 10-year-old, my first exposure to a person with dark melanin was romantic.
I like to quip that there were no Black people in South Dakota because they had the common sense not to be there. We all knew that the people who were systemically oppressed in the Dakotas were on the reservations. My parents were always super progressive and educated me early that what had befallen the Lakota was our fault as white people and not some inherent flaw in the Native Americans.
Meanwhile, I had the great fortune to attend an open-minded and experimental Lutheran high school in Canton, South Dakota. The experimental aspect of the boarding school was the dreamchild of Pastor Bob Nervig, who was convinced, as am I, that a primary way to solve racism is to have us all live together, learn about one another and to get out of the mindset of “the other” and that “different” people are scary.
I had fabulous relationships with kids from all over the world, all backgrounds and all colors. Robin Morgan, feminist leader and author, says, “Hate is general; love is specific.” At Augustana Academy I had specific relationships with Black and other hued teens, and it changed my life. Because February is Black History Month, I’ll focus on my experiences during that time with my Black friends and acquaintances.
Like everything in my life, it started with books. When I was 14, I read “Black Like Me,” “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” “Manchild in the Promised Land,” “The Fire Next Time” and “Confessions of Nat Turner” (plus several more) in my social studies class. I would wager that we were the only kids reading Black Liberation books in South Dakota.
When you’re with a smorgasbord of people who are commonly thought of as “the other,” you get very clear that stereotypes are created and perpetuated to keep them that way. I had Black friends, both boys and girls, who were geeky, intellectual, artsy fartsy, athletic, shy, gentle, silly, brave, bold and every combination of those attributes. In other words, they were individuals.
In our society, the only group that so far has been able to be regarded as individuals, and not representatives of the entire group, are white cis men. Why? Because they are generally in charge of what stories are told in history books, film, TV and the news. All our storytelling venues spew out the same ol’ stereotypes, decade after decade. Those stereotypes impact all of us, whether it’s the stereotype of the ghetto thug, the ditzy arm-candy blonde or the gang-banger Mexican.
After Barack Obama was elected president, I noticed an uptick in the depiction of diverse Black men on screen. Suddenly there were Black male computer nerds, scientists, intellectuals and artists. That was the Obama effect, showing U.S. viewers a Black character could be all sorts of ways. Diverse Black female characters followed, although many years later.
Native Americans generally continue to endure stereotypical problems. If aliens landed and watched our news or “entertainment,” they wouldn’t know we had an Indigenous people at all, as they are rarely featured in any capacity. Shame on American storytellers.
If you’re intelligent and curious, it’s almost impossible to overlook greatness in “the other” once you’ve seen it. You can’t acknowledge the horror of events like the Tulsa massacre of 1921 without also “grokking” how deeply white people were terrified of Black success. Seeing Blacks at that time excel via the “Black Wall Street” of Tulsa, it’s difficult to keep promulgating lies that Blacks are inferior to whites. It doesn’t feel as bad to be vicious to people when you’ve grown up being told that not only are they “the other,” but they are also “less than.”
I’ve always been thrilled that Black History Month is a celebration of the stories and histories of African Americans. However, I also want white people to focus on it… just as I want not only women and girls but men and boys to focus on March, Women’s History Month as well. In truth, all of our American history needs to be a remedial course in asking, “Who’s missing from this picture?” As in, where are the women? Where are the African Americans? Where are the Native Americans? Scratch the surface and you will find them.
Finally, the funny and talented Amber Ruffin has a glorious new late-night show of her own. One of her latest bits is a hard-hitting comeback to “We don’t have a white history month, so why do you get a Black History Month?” She’s a sublime meld of silly and deep, and has one of the best answers ever, posted on YouTube, on why whites need Black History Month.
Ellen Snortland has written “Consider This…” for a heckuva long time, and she also coaches first-time book authors! Contact her at email@example.com.