Nicole Johnson and Jackie Summers discuss racism in the 21st century and express their hope for a greater representation of ethnic voices.
I grew up in the one of the whitest towns in America. In the 1970’s Hamilton, Massachusetts was the furthest thing from a cultural melting pot. Being 100% Italian (my maiden name is Andreottola), I felt like I was in the minority. Consequently, I can’t imagine what life was like for the scarce amount of African Americans living in the town I perceived as Wasp-Ville.
When I was 13 years old, I asked my parents how they would feel if I married a black man. Their answer seemed to take forever. I assumed they were thinking of the perfect, color blind response considering I was dating a young black man. To this day, I remember my mother’s exact words: “Nicole, you can marry whoever you want in life, but I would be concerned for you and your children. Interracial marriages are challenging enough as it is, and when you add children to the mix it can be even more difficult.”
With Black History Month already upon us, I’ve been reflecting upon my mother’s words. Twenty-four years have passed since she expressed her concerns about interracial marriage. I wonder if her sentiments are spoken in 2012 … How many white mothers are currently worried about their daughters marrying a black man? How many people live a racially colorblind life? I want to believe that everyone does, but I know this is sadly untrue. I don’t live in a cloud of naiveté, but I wish racial, religious, ethnic, sexual, and gender prejudices would cease to exist.
In my quest for answers, I decided I would ask my valued friend and colleague, Jackie Summers, about his thoughts on racism in the 21stcentury, what Black History Month means to him, and the concept of a “White America” and a “Black America.”
Every time I ask Jackie a question, I’m met with truth, compassion, sagacity, and of course, humor. His powerful perspective continues to transform my world.
As watermelon is still at least five months out of season, my ability to honor my cultural heritage is severely impeded.
I kid. Seriously.
As a historian I see innate value in the observation of Black History Month, as black history is American history, despite the fact that the people charged with recording history prefer to ignore this. There is, for example, a movement right now in Tennessee to erase the mention of slavery from history books, despite the fact that American wealth was created on the literal backs of a slave labor force. This ideology is akin to those who would claim the Holocaust never happened, and diametrically opposed to the well known motto of the 9/11 tragedies: never forget.
Distortions in the historical lens make an accurate view of the present impossible. Take Edison for example. As a child I was taught that he was one of the greatest inventors of all time. As an adult I now know that Edison was a terrific businessman with an astute eye for snatching up–or stealing outright–patents, but largely a failed inventor. Nikola Tesla, a Serbian immigrant, was a far better inventor, and we owe much of our modern technological age to his genius, yet he died destitute and largely unrecognized. My point is: while we cannot right the wrongs done by those who came before us, we can at least acknowledge the contributions of all who helped make this country great, as changing perception is the first step towards creating a true egalitarian society.
Morgan Freeman told 60 Minutes that Black History Month is “ridiculous, you’re going to relegate my history to a month.” What do you think of Black History Month, Jackie? Do you think it is “ridiculous?”
I think looking to a person who gets paid to pretend to be other people for a living for socioeconomic commentary, is ridiculous. While I appreciate his butter-smooth narratives and flawless diction, Mr. Freeman is an entertainer, not a political scientist, and I’m fairly certain he is not the Emperor of Black People.
However, to put his statement in context, his point was: if you open most textbooks, every month is white history month. When the history of all Americans is included by default instead of demand, we will have abolished the need to acknowledge the contributions of any individual segment of society.
The 2012 Black History Month theme is “Black Women in American Culture and History.” Who would you celebrate in this category?
I’d start with my Mom. Born in 1927 in Harlem New York, seven years after women gained the right to vote. The daughter of Barbadian immigrants, she started working in 1943, right in the middle of World War II. She married my Dad at 19 years old, and that same year started working in one of the first laboratories to research the effects of cigarette smoke on humans. She performed autopsies on rats and identified abnormalities in tissue samples, performing the work of a research scientist while receiving the salary of a janitor. She saved enough money for the initial deposit on the house I grew up in, in Jamaica, Queens, where she raised five children and lived with my Dad for 56 years, until his passing eight years ago. If that’s not worthy of celebration, nothing is.
Since the election of President Obama, has racism declined or escalated in America?
Take a look at the Presidential Seal. The insignia–in Latin–is: E Pluribus Unim. The translation: out of many, one. A lofty ideal, but ask yourself honestly: have we lived up to this?
I don’t think racism has declined or escalated since Obama’s election, as much as it’s brought a lot of what was hidden out into the light. Denying the existence of racism while espousing blatantly racist’s beliefs is the new racism. It’s polarized the country, in that, while no individual or organization out rightly admits to racism–which, for the record, is not merely a black and white issue but affects and impacts all ethnicities–the economic divide along racial lines has never been clearer, and the terms by which class warfare is being declared has never been more distinct.
Do you believe there is a “White America” and a “Black America” in 2012?
That doesn’t leave much room for Asians, Latinos, Native Americans, or anyone else. I live in Brooklyn. My block has no less than twelve condo developments on it–read: gentrified. Go a block north or south and you’re in the projects. Go east and it’s a Puerto Rican neighborhood, go west and it is Hasidic. Go a mile down Atlantic Avenue and it’s the largest Arabic community in New York City, and yet somehow, we manage not to kill each other. That’s MY America. There’s no reason we can’t maintain our identities, our cultural heritage, and coexist, but we still have a longway to go in terms of privilege–real and implied–before we’ll have a level playing field.
Bill Cosby has stated: “We, as black folks, have to do a better job; we have to start holding each other to a higher standard.” Do you agree with Bill Cosby’s philosophy?
Mr. Cosby, like Mr. Freeman, is an entertainer. If for some reason I require an opinion on pudding, or multi-colored sweaters, I’ll be certain to consult him. However there is validity to his statement, if properly qualified: we, as people, have to do a better job; we have to start holding each other to a higher standard. Black folks are a subset of people, and in this respect, it applies to them as it applies to us all.
There’s a popular ideology that says if you stop talking about racism you can banish racism. Do you agree with this ideology?
Let’s play a game. Substitute the word “racism” with another social ill and let’s see if the ideology holds.
- If you stop talking about sexism you can banish sexism.
- If you stop talking about homophobia you can banish homophobia.
Let’s take it a step further:
- If you stop talking about cancer you can banish cancer.
As you can see, the ideology doesn’t hold. Women didn’t gain the right to vote by not talking about it. Proposition 8 wasn’t ruled unconstitutional by not talking about it. Cancer, aids, and other deadly diseases are not going to be cured by pretending they no longer exist. The only reason the Civil Rights Act–which protects the rights of all Americans, of all colors–was passed was because of prolonged, intense, international discussion.
The only people this ideology is popular with are people who are averse to the conversation because it makes them uncomfortable. Well boo-fucking-hoo. Yes, the conversation is difficult, awkward, and raises endless heated emotional debate. Improving society has never been pleasant and has never happened without violent resistance and occasional outright revolt. As John F. Kennedy said, “those who make peaceful revolution impossible, make violent revolution inevitable. My parent’s generation saw the end of British imperialism in India. My generation saw the end of apartheid in South Africa. Neither Gandhi or Mandela were well known for their silence. I expect the conversation about racism to continue, vociferously on both sides, until human progress is accomplished.
How can The Good Men Project improve race relations in our country and around the world?
Fund scientific research dedicated to creating a watermelon crop that grows in February.
I kid. About the watermelons. Seriously. For starters, I would love to see a greater representation of ethnic voices – Black, Latin, Asian, Native – and more ink dedicated to the issues that concern them. Goodness doesn’t have a color, but color certainly has different kinds of challenges.