Deesha Philyaw is a freelance writer and adjunct professor in the Master of Professional Writing Program at Chatham University. She is a black co-parenting mom of two girls, ages 7 and 12, one of whom is adopted, and stepmom of two girls, age 12 and 14. Deesha has written a series of blogs for us to help celebrate Black History Month throughout February, starting with It’s Okay To Be A Token. Really.
With all due respect, can we put these two to rest? Or at least go deeper? Consider books and films that explore Martin Luther King, Jr.’s childhood, for example. He wasn’t born giving the “I Have a Dream” speech. Where did he get his ideas? Who killed him? What legacy did he leave behind? Why did some people not want to have his life commemorated as a federal holiday? Did you know Rosa Parks was not the first person to refuse to give up her seat on the bus? Claudette Colvin was. With teens, you may wish to look her up and find out why she didn’t make history; be prepared to discuss prevailing social mores as well as gender and class issues.
We err by making Black History Month synonymous with a handful of Civil Rights Movement figures and people marching for rights. In doing so, we risk giving our children a narrow image of black people limited to that single (albeit critical) historical moment plus contemporary celebrity images. The result: Black people remain cast as the unfamiliar, iconized, long-suffering, or otherwise stereotyped “other.” This is particularly problematic for black children, especially those who are already “othered” in predominantly white communities.
When I taught elementary school, a white parent of a white child once lamented that she couldn’t find books featuring black characters that did not deal with race or racism or slavery. “Where,” she wondered, “are the books featuring a girl who likes to ride horses, like my daughter, who just happens to be black?” I’ve heard similar laments from black parents of black children. As a parent, I am grateful for picture books by Patricia McKissack, Elizabeth Fitzgerald Howard, Melodye Rosales, and the “colorized” classic fairytales published by Harper Collins’s Jump at the Sun imprint. My older daughter has enjoyed chapter books featuring black main characters like Willimena in the Willimena Rules series and Miami in the Miami Jackson series, and Amy Hodges (biracial) in the Amy Hodgepodge series. Catherine Anderson and her children address the idea of “otherness” and the “invisibility” of black people in the media they consume. She says, “We notice when all the characters in a movie are white, and we talk about what that means to us as the viewers.”
Multi-Cultural vs. Cross-Cultural: What’s The Difference?
Above, I distinguished between multi-cultural and cross-cultural experiences. I used to use the terms interchangeably until I heard a pastor explain, “Multi-cultural” describes sitting in the pews next to people whose skin color is different from yours, and saying, “Aren’t we so welcoming, and isn’t this just what heaven’s going to be like?…then driving home to homogenous neighborhood and living a homogenous existence until next Sunday rolls around. “Multi-cultural” says nothing about the quality of the relationships (or lack thereof) that we have with people of different cultural backgrounds or the depth of our inquiry into their stories.
By contrast, “cross-cultural” experiences involve an exchange of culture and ideas, a deeper sharing, and likely, a departure from our comfort zones. In a cross-cultural observance of Black History Month, we attend community events, organize community events, and ask questions. Are the contributions of black Americans included in the curriculum at your child’s school? Beyond the “usual suspects” trotted out in February? We ask questions of those charged with educating our children, and we ask questions of ourselves. Is our commitment to cross-cultural exchange evident in the art and literature we consume, how we spend our money, where we choose to live, how we vote, who we include in our intimate circle—not as “tokens”, but as our equals?