What Can White Folks Do for Black History Month? Keep Their Promise.
Whites yelled Black Lives Matter at the top of their lungs in 2020. Blacks haven’t forgotten the promise assumed in doing so.
It’s been a little over six months since social uprisings and protests swept the country. 2020 was the year where Black people had enough (again). Between police brutality, white supremacy, and everything Trump, Black people hit the streets en masse to tell America to cut the shit.
In the midst of it, something unusual happened. White people started yelling too. And in that yelling, a large contingent of white people and corporations made promises of change.
That bill is still due.
Last year America faced the manifestations of its own ugliness. A buffoonish, cartoon-like version of its worst traits that it found embarrassing. America’s racist and nationalist id swelled beyond its moralist superego.
Whether it was genuine guilt or opportunism (or both), white people began policing themselves as individuals and as a tribe. For many Black people, it started with messages from white friends offering material support. Money, food, foot rubs, everything seemed to be on the table if it meant that it would assuage some of the guilt that now permeated whiteness.
As more and more of America began to utter the words, Black Lives Matter, an intrinsic promise was being made. That promise encompassed an acknowledgment of the systemic racism that America was founded on and a willingness to at least superficially atone for those sins.
The sentiment of white individuals soon bled into corporate America. I was inundated with emails tweets and ads from companies touting their either newfound or long-standing dedication to Black lives in America even in the face of their own questionable track records.
As the fruit of white guilt bubbled in every form, from random CashApp donations to job opportunities, and more the expectation was that this windfall would have a short shelf life. We have seen these moments in the past. Often the surge subsides with false finish lines. The end of slavery, the civil rights movement, and the election of Obama all signaled a supposed end to racism as ideology and policy. And every time, Black people chimed in and reminded America that the job was not done. Usually to the ire of those who thought they had a hand at creating long-lasting change.
We are steps away from another false finish line.
As we move past the four-year nightmare that was the Trump presidency and President Biden works to undo Trump’s legacy (also known as redoing Obama’s legacy), it would be very easy for white America to take their foot off the gas again.
I have written previously about witnessing the notion of white triumph while serving as Black allies after Biden was named President. I wrote in part, “Being Black means knowing that all of this is fleeting. The achievements (look at what Trump did to former President Barack Obama’s legacy in just four years), the interest (allyship is only as strong as its ROI), and even our lives (no example needed). Black joy comes with an asterisk.”
As my wife says, it became the second coming of Langston Hughes’ “When The Negro Was In Vogue,” in which Hughes recounts the white interest and influence in and on the Harlem Renaissance.
Hughes wrote, “White people began to come to Harlem in droves. For several years they packed the expensive Cotton Club on Lenox Avenue. But I was never there because the Cotton Club was a Jim Crow club for gangsters and monied whites. They were not cordial to Negro patronage unless you were a celebrity like Bojangles. So Harlem Negroes did not like the Cotton Club and never appreciated the Jim Crow policy in the very heart of their dark community. Nor did ordinary Negroes like the growing influx of whites toward Harlem after sundown, flooding the little cabarets and bars where formerly only colored people laughed and sang, and where now the strangers were given the best ringside tables to sit.”
Black liberation can’t be an arrow in the quiver of the white liberal conscience. The cost of being the cause du jour is too high because whiteness swallows everything surrounding it.
Much like the upswell of interest in Black life that Hughes described in the 1920s, the interest we are experiencing is likely a temporary state. But now, as we enter Black history month, we all are reminded of the full-throated pledge to protect Black lives. Especially when it comes to corporations whose marketing campaigns amounted to “we are different” because the typical Black History Month marketing campaigns rings hollow in light of a year of arduously claiming that Black Lives Matter. White/corporate America raised the ante, and Black folks have called. It’s time to put the cards on the table.
If 2020 was confession, 2021 has to be the beginning of a measurable penance. That penance has to begin to strip away the trappings that make white supremacy so comfortable and so addictive. It is reconciling with the fact that the uplifting of Black people in America means ceding power as individuals and as a community. It is about being uncomfortable in a way that privilege makes exponentially difficult.
Failing in this promise means that for white allies (I still hate the idea of allies), Black Lives Matter was a means to an end, a temporary alignment of interest that could be capitalized on. A tool for liberal whites to course-correct back to the sleepy comfort of unassuming whiteness and Black lives will go back on the shelf.
Hughes again, “I was there. I had a swell time while it lasted. But I thought it wouldn’t last long. (I remember the vogue for things Russian, the season the Chauve-Souris first came to town.) For how could a large and enthusiastic number of people be crazy about Negroes forever?”