this Black History Month, take extra care
musings on worth, denial, celebration
Happy Black History Month. Today begins the designated 28 or 29 days America sets aside every year to reflect on and celebrate Black contributions to the culture, and to the world. I associate this time very much with my childhood, with fluorescent-lit classrooms where white schoolteachers would regale me with tales of Harriet Tubman, George Carver Washington, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Even then, I could sense there was something wrong, something off. I remember my 6th grade social studies teacher telling us MLK sacrificed his life to bring peace the world and being straight up confused. Although I did not know much about the world I knew it was a) not fucking peaceful and that b) MLK’s death was an assassination, not a sacrifice.
At 10-years-old or whatever I could not articulate it, but I can’t now — there is nothing particularly celebratory about shrouding the history of Black people in America in straight up lies. I understand now that a lot of the lies, that smearing of Vaseline on the lens, isn’t even in the interest of Black people but specifically meant to make white people feel less icky about the past. It’s all so boring.
We’ve all heard the reports about how critical race theory is being targeted and banned across the country. The gag of course is that it’s not really critical race theory specifically but the racial truths of this country more generally that are being targeted. One Florida bill by Republican governor Rob DeSantis is seeking to prohibit public schools and private businesses feel “discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress” when they teach students or train employees about racism and discrimination in America.
This country’s unwillingness to be comfortable with discomfort is bizarre. Guilt, for instance, is a necessary and healthy emotion. Guilt means that you know you’ve done wrong and you want to fix it. And yet a lot of white guilt seeks to separate the offender from the offense. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten DMs and comments from people saying things like “I’m sorry on behalf of all white people.”
I think this is what white people think we want? But I don’t want your sorry, especially if its abstract, lacking any specificity or accountability for the role you play in perpetuating systems that oppress. That’s the thing — these bills, this “CRT” dialogue, is all so disingenuous. It’s not actually about guilt or shame. It’s about the privilege of denial. Somehow, everything, including holidays/months designed to celebrate to tell the truth, gets wrapped up in that denial.
I’ve been in a cynical mood. Let me tell you a quick story.
The story I want to tell you regards a kind of tone-setting for something that every Black person who creates or thinks online must contend with: the Black History Month industrial complex.
While I was in LA, I had been avoiding my inbox for several days, chasing rest, dreading the sea of messages I’d eventually have to wade through. Inboxes are so weird for me, because I’m always waiting for something that will create a kind of momentum in my life, the next email that will bring me an “opportunity,” and, frankly help me survive another month freelancing because the absolute last thing I want to do is work in a newsroom again. And yet for every viable opportunity in the inbox, there are emails like the one below, the first in the pile once I mustered the energy to look at my inbox:
Black History Month Instagram Takeover ft Zeba
How are you? Happy New Year, I hope you're well. [redacted] here, I'm the Founder and Creative Director of [redacted]. The creative ad agency connecting consumer brands to women of color through authentic storytelling. Our mission is to empower women in the media and entertainment industry through sustainability and representation. I found you on IG and thought you were fab and thought you'd be a fit for a programming we're launching for Black History Month.
It's a celebratory month, so we want to show love to dope fly black women who exude confidence + brilliance. We would love for you to takeover on our agency IG, taking us through your day, sharing who you are, what you do, you know, being fab! We have a few spots open: Feb 3rd, 7th, 9th or 25th or 27th. In appreciation, we are giving away a $100 Amazon Gift Card.
We love forward to having you.
The emphasis above is mine. I’m fascinated (also horrified) by the way many of the idyllic concepts we've been discussing and developing culturally, concepts anchored by integrity and intention (authenticity, sustainability, representation), have now become buzzwords in the corporate world, utterly devoid of meaning. That kind of co-opting and corruption makes me so uneasy. It’s so dangerous. In so many ways it’s a trap, because it puts people who are actually striving for these ideals in really precarious, unfair positions.
And most importantly the co-opting contributes to this collective denial/lie that I first clocked in elementary school — that empowering images of Black people can adequately make up for our actual empowerment. Don’t get me wrong, empowering stories and images are important. But if they only serve as gilding, contributing an overall patina of celebration without truly being celebratory beyond the aesthetics and the optics, what is the point?
I really don’t care about money, because I know (even as I type this with my checking account overdrawn chile) that money will come, eventually. I’ll be OK. I do care, however, about the truth. How does a $100 Amazon Gift card truly fit into any vision of empowerment, sustainability, love? How does me sharing the “confidence + brilliance” I exude essentially for free ultimately make me (or anyone) feel celebrated or loved ? And bear in mind, this was a Black woman reaching out to me. I’m not trying to blow anyone’s spot, I understand that times are hard and not everyone has a budget, particularly if they are in the early stages of launching a business or brand.
I myself have been compromised in this way as en editor, eager to spotlight the work of Black writers I admire but given paltry resources to aid in that endeavor. I get that these things can be delicate and complex. But I’m just so gagged by the dissonance, the unwillingness to even name the fact that the work (and it is work) I’m being asked to do is not equal the gesture of appreciation offered.
And it happens every year - people whose work forefronts Blackness, diversity or inclusion are asked to “explain white supremacy itself” in the form of IG takeovers, corporate webinars, panels, roundtables, and so on. In the week since I received the gift card email I’ve also gotten three more asks to talk to corporate brands about the importance of diversity and inclusion, “Black Girl Magic” (I think they were confusing me with someone else), and the future of Black activism (a lot of these people seem to think I am an activist despite the fact that I’m just a writer), all for little to no compensation.
And all I can think about is elementary school, that “off” feeling, that sense that this was not what I was supposed to be learning or how I wished to be experiencing a month dedicated to celebrating Blackness.
Serendipitously, a day after I got the Amazon gift card email my cousin and favorite critical thinker Dr. Yaba Blay hosted an IG Live, a “Family meeting/Black History Month intervention” as she described it, speaking to all of this. Specifically, the ways in which Black people contribute/participate in this culture of last minute inquiries, insulting requests, offers of “exposure” in lieu of adequate compensation.
It’s a complex but necessary conversation to have, because it points to the overall dishonesty that surrounds these months of remembrance and celebration. I suggest you all watch the live - it provides a lot of the nuance and honesty and discomfort I’m seeking to lean into this month.
This month, I want to observe BHM by saying “no” to what is not for me and “yes” to what is, trusting my intuition fully. I want to meditate specifically on Black femme artists, writers and thinkers who came before me and use the reality of their lives as inspiration and affirmation.
I just feel like, moving forward, we need to take extra care. We need to continue to be interested in how to move with integrity amidst all the hypocrisy that still lives in the world. I’m including myself obviously in this as well. I’m thinking a lot about who I am (outside and inside of the work that I do), what I have to offer, what I believe my worth is, and how that all can be further in alignment.
You could say that I’m in a current season of desperation (financially at least), but I don’t want to move through this world from a place of desperation. I want to honor myself and my needs because in doing so I’m honoring those who paved the way for me, for everyone. And that’s a kind of celebration, I think. To know the past, understand the past, respect the past, and yet also acknowledge that we deserve more than what the past and present have to offer, in every sense. That’s what I’ll be reflecting on this February, anyway.