Being “Black-ish”: Column
A post-racial society may have benefits, but people risk losing their culture on the way.
By Richard Pierce
Do you ever feel as if you are swimming upstream in a river? How about the feeling that you are running into the wind, uphill? Perhaps you could provide some other cliché that implies that one is working harder than one might and against the prevailing opinion of the crowd.
I often feel that way. I do so because I continue to teach African American history at the university level when there are so many cultural clues that many don’t feel it is important. I was reminded of my predicament when I learned of a television show, “Black-ish” starring Anthony Anderson, which will air for the first time in Fall 2014 on ABC.
The Hollywood Reporter described the show as an “upper-middle class black man who struggles to raise his children with a sense of cultural identity despite constant contradictions and obstacles coming from his liberal wife, old-school father and his own assimilated, color-blind kids.” Anderson plays a successful executive with all the trappings; an enviable address, an expensive automobile, and, perhaps most importantly, a closet reserved solely for his shoes. Yet he wonders what elements of African-American cultural his children must give up in order to “fit in.”
Left unsaid is the dilemma in defining the difference between culture and history or, in fact, if they are one in the same. If so, how does one decide what of their historical past must be forgotten? There is a prevailing pressure to homogenize education, especially history; to round the protruding edges and smooth them into a more aesthetically pleasing whole. Periodically, I hear that there is no need to teach African American history because the teaching of United States history should suffice.
Of course, such a viewpoint brings memories of W.E.B. DuBois’ now seemingly perpetual question of twoness, “One ever feels his two-ness, — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled [sic] strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body.”
Teaching African American history, evidently, reminds students that the country’s history was not seamless, without conflict or differing results. But understanding that struggle would be helpful in the present day. Helping students understand the long fight for equal access to the ballot box would enable them to appreciate why African Americans are suspicious of efforts to restrict access to the polls today. How does one round that edge?
America seems to wish to rush to the status of a color-blind society. The Roberts court’s recent decision in Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action is just the latest evidence that America refuses to accept policies that address historical inequalities when those remedies are based on race. So we find African American families with a 21st Century dilemma that DuBois would hardly recognize: how to preserve a distinct culture when all about you seem to urge a forgetting. The dilemma is most poignantly found when one is involved in raising children and it starts early.
What name do you provide your child when studies have found that ethnic-sounding names can doom your child to the ranks of the unemployed or under-employed. Where do you educate them? How do you explain racial difference to a kindergartner? Elder relatives encountered many of these questions, but with legal constraints removed and political remedies abandoned, what now? Do we sanction the effort of the color-blind advocates by failing to provide any cultural identifiers or historical information?
I do not know the answers to the slew of questions that abound. I do not know how I would have aided Anderson’s mythical character when his son asked for a bar mitzvah even though the family is not Jewish. But I know that I will continue to teach African American history to people of all cultures because I believe in history. I believe that history continues to instruct. I believe that history is constructed. I believe that history has meaning and that the journey of history will always have contours that befuddle and confuse, but that the lessons are no less meaningful. And I believe that whatever artifacts and accouterments adorn my children, they will not be well-dressed if I have failed to share with them their history.
Richard Pierce is the John Cardinal O’Hara Associate Professor of History in the Department of Africana Studies at the University of Notre Dame.