Sunday, 3 March 2013

Does black history month matter?

This year's Black History month ended on Thursday. The history and achievements of African-Americans is celebrated each year in February, a month which some African-Americans complain is far too short to celebrate their heritage. While I have the utmost respect for African-Americans as a people - for having overcome the injustices of slavery, and the subsequent laws and policies that sought to keep them down - I can't help but wonder as someone living in New York City, "How much have they really achieved?". This question may seem laughable in light of the fact that the President of these United States of America (as he often refers to the country) is Black. But let's not forget he is not African-American in the sense that we use the term - he is of African and American heritage but not a product of slavery. His ancestors did not arrive in Virginia in the 1600s as slaves, and although he has certainly benefitted from the civil rights movement, he wasn't born into a family that fought for the right to sit in the same part of the cinema or bus or restaurant as white people. I would argue that while things have certainly changed for the better for black people in the US, there is still so much that needs to be done.

New York has the largest black population than any city in the United States- 24% of the population yet a whopping 60% of homicide victims are Black. The statistics are similar when we talk about poverty, illiteracy and so many other related social problems. I am more aware of people judging and pigeon-holing me as a black person living in the city than I ever was living in London. That is not to say racism is less prevalent in London but it is not expressed as often and openly as it is here in the New York. It seems as a black person you carry the burden of being part of a population at least in NYC, who are mostly poor, uneducated, criminals and drug addicts. Regardless of whether I'm wearing a suit, bigots and racists (of which there are many) will judge me up until the moment I open my mouth and they realize that I am not another African-American- baby-mama-on-welfare- ignorant-inarticulate - a product of the Projects (low-cost government housing usually synonymous with the Ghetto). Its laughable because there are countless educated African-Americans but the prevalence of being judged in this city leads me to conclude that we, the educated black population must be a drop in the ocean compared to the criminals and druggies. Why else would be face racial stereotyping on such a consistent basis? Flagging yellow taxis in Manhattan becomes an issue where flagging black cabs in London never was; estate agents and landlords assume I do not have the means to pay for an apartment until I provide so much documentary proof that they may as well be asking me to give them my first born child. And while its conceivable to think that everyone goes through these checks, I'm confident not everyone gets asked before providing any personal details if they're aware that the prices they'd be dealing with are over a certain amount. As though I stumbled in a particular area which is clearly above my modest means, by mistake. My experience in the hospital system where I was threatened with a child service referral because I dared question the motivation of a doctor who insisted on keeping my well child in for longer than I considered necessary. My child's babysitter, on the other hand, a single black parent was referred to the child services because an over zealous child service official thought that her delay in providing a car seat to take a premature newborn home was symptomatic of a negligent parent who needed to be watched. What I find most unforgiving of these stereotypes is that there is evidence of a solid black educated class all around me. My GP (family doctor) for instance is African-American, her twin is also a doctor and her brother a lawyer - and it's not just her generation, her parents are also professionals. There are countless African-American families who are third generation postgraduate degree holders. There are numerous black families who have owned beautiful brownstones in Brooklyn and Harlem for decades, that are now worth millions of dollars. Historically black colleges have produced greats like Martin Luther King, Oprah Winfrey, Samuel L Jackson, Alice Walker and Toni Morrison. The contributions made by descendants of slaves as well as the African and Caribbean immigrant population has been indispensable to the creation of World's superpower. Yet the level of racism in this country is startling, the lack of understanding and appreciation for one another between White and African-Americans is obvious, to outsiders and to Americans themselves.

Nonetheless African-Americans have a lot to be proud of and one of the positive things about the month of February is that they remind the whole country of their achievements. From the broadcasting of award shows like the NAACP Image Awards and BET Honors, that celebrate individuals, famous and not, who have contributed to their societies, to countless films made by and starring African-Americans to museum events, literary events and many more celebrations. In February, we forget for a moment the statistics about the education system that fails black children, and about the number of incarcerated black men there are and for a refreshing 28 or 29 days we remind ourselves that there is so much to be proud of. My only concern is that these examples of African-American success are not broadcast widely enough. Perhaps the taxi driver who tells me that he almost didn't stop for me because "let me be honest with you, black people don't always pay and when they do, they don't tip" could do with some positive images of black people. He and the many people like him could do with being reminded that there are more examples of Black success in the USA than any other country outside the African continent, if only people care to shed their bigotry and take a closer look.

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