“Alright class, take out your handouts today. It’s February 2nd and we’re going to kick off our celebration of African American heritage month!” Ms. Johnson smiled to her colorful fourth grade class.
The class dutifully took out their booklets except for one young girl in the back.
“Cynthia,” the teacher leaned her head as she looked at her desk. “Where’s your booklet?”
“It’s in my bag, Ms. Johnson,” said Cynthia dutifully.
“Is there a reason you don’t wish to take out your handbook?” Ms. Johnson frowned over her broad smile.
“I don’t see a point,” she said, shrugging.
The class paused, staring at her.
Ms. Johnson hesitated and stepped under herself, straightening. “Would you care to explain why?”
Cynthia blinked, surprised to be put on the spot, looking around. “Well, I’m not really sure, exactly.”
“Go ahead and pull out your book, Cynthia,” Ms. Johnson smiled grimly as the students resumed searching through their colorful cartoon and pink bespeckled back packs.
“I don’t think I can do that.”
“Cynthia,” Ms. Johnson frowned.
“Why are we celebrating this?” she asked.
Ms. Johnson was taken aback. “Why are- Cynthia, you of all people should know that celebrating history is certainly important. You excel at history. Didn’t you tell me yesterday that very smart quote that those who don’t listen to history are sure to repeat it?”
“Condemned,” corrected Cynthia.
“Yes,” Ms. Johnson smiled. “Condemned.”
“Then … why don’t you want to celebrate the history of some great men and women?”
“Then,” Ms. Johnson sighed, “why don’t you want to celebrate them?”
“I do,” Cynthia answer matter-of-factly.
“Then pull out your handbook.”
“But that isn’t the point,” Cynthia answered.
“Then what is?” Ms. Johnson was trying not to raise her voice.
“These people aren’t black.”
Ms. Johnson blinked, staring. The entire class watched the exchange. Ms. Johnson collected herself and straightened her collared shirt. “Then, what are they?”
Ms. Johnson attempted not to laugh at the sentiment. “Of course they are, Cynthia. That’s why we’re highlighting them. They’re black Americans.”
“No, Ms. Johnson, they’re not,” she said. “They’re Americans. And men. And women. But they’re not black.”
“I think even they would disagree with you,” said Ms. Johnson, thinking she might have to engage the young girl to win and shut her up. “If you’d open your handbook to page 15, you’d see that Frederick Douglass wrote a letter to President Lincoln entitled ‘What the Black Man Wants.’ Even he recognized that there are black men and white men in the world.”
“If we look at the time in which Mr. Douglass wrote this, men who were black had to be distinguished for their grossly biased treatment at the hands of the majority,” Cynthia said. “But Mr. Douglass fought for liberty and equality, regardless of skin color.”
“Right,” Ms. Johnson sighed patronizingly.
“And we’re not helping him.”
“How aren’t we helping him? We celebrate the efforts of blacks from Tubman to Martin Luther King, Jr. We educate American students on the value of black workers, entrepreneurs and political figures. Our own president is black! That’s a cause for celebration!”
“What, that a man was elected president?”
“No, Cynthia, that a black man was elected president.”
“And so now all people with black skin are treated equally? The years of African-American History Months, the government welfare that destroyed the continuity of the family within communities dominated by people with dark skin, the poverty state, the rap culture … we’re all equal, right?”
“No,” Ms. Johnson dropped her brow. “Which is why-”
“We’re celebrating men as black instead of men,” Cynthia cut her off. She held no attitude, which made it more difficult for Ms. Johnson to bite back at the precocious child.
“We celebrate them as both.”
“Then we celebrate racism,” Cynthia shrugged.
“What? That is not true!” Ms. Johnson’s jaw dropped. “How can you say that?”
“Back then, there was a severe opportunity difference,” said Cynthia. “Today, we all go to public schools. We have the same text books, the same internet, the same light bulbs at home to read our books and learn.”
“So it’s because they’re black?”
“Partly. They don’t get the kinds of jobs whites get.”
“Like president of the Unites States?” asked Cynthia.
Ms. Johnson frowned. ”It’s because they’re already poor!”
“So it’s not because of their skin color?”
“Then why are we celebrating them apart from everyone else?”
“To show that they’re no different!”
“So treating them differently is to show that they’re no different?”
Ms. Johnson had trouble swallowing. “It’s the principle of the thing.”
“If it was the principle of the thing, we would have stopped calling people black a long time ago,” said Cynthia. “They would just be people. Poor people. Rich people. Fun people. Bad people. But people. I know it was important to point out this stuff when we were denied equal rights, but our president today has black skin. Or, brownish skin. How much more do people need to believe that it doesn’t matter what the color of your skin is but that our lives depend on the content of our characters?”
“We need to ensure that no one thinks anyone is inferior due to the color of their skin.”
“Just by the amount of help they get from the government?”
“These are separate issues,” said Ms. Johnson.
“Then we don’t need to celebrate dark skin to help people get out of poverty, then.”
“The world is racist,” stammered Ms. Johnson.
“And we promote unity by celebrating our differences?” asked Cynthia. “When momma makes me play with my little brother, she wouldn’t let us argue that ‘I’m a girl,’ or ‘I’m a boy.’ Instead, she made us play as family. It doesn’t matter your differences when the things that connect you are what is most important.”
“So what are you saying?” Ms. Johnson threw her hands up. “Stop celebrating these people?”
“Not at all!” Cynthia seemed shocked at the idea. “We celebrate them in the same topics as everyone else. With the people with white skin and yellow skin and caramel skin, because it doesn’t matter what skin color it is. It only matters that one man, or one woman, stood up to free other people who were being treated unfairly because of the color of their skin.”
“But there’s not as much history when you compare blacks to whites! It’s important to make a special time to highlight them!”
“No it’s not,” smiled Cynthia. “Do we have a month for gold miners?”
Ms. Johnson frowned. “Of course not. They’re a tiny part of … of our tapestry.”
“So are people with black skin,” said Cynthia. “Those people just got a late start. But Carver created lots of stuff that helped everyone. King helped people see that it didn’t matter what color you were. Tubman helped people become free! We never forget these things, but while we remember that colors made a big difference when they were alive, today we have to stop acting like it really makes a difference.”
“Then what do we make it about, hm?”
Cynthia shrugged. “People.”
“And how do we educate black communities and help them lift themselves out of their poverty? How do we give them icons to aspire to?”
“First, not all black communities are poor, nor are all white communities are rich. To think otherwise is racist,” said Cynthia. “Second, we give them the same icons everyone else has. George Washington. Thomas Jefferson. Benjamin Franklin. Abraham Lincoln. Frederick Douglass. Harriet Tubman. George Washington Carver. Wilbur and Orville Wright. Dwight Eisenhower. Martin Luther King. Neil Armstrong. Rosa Parks. Norman Schwartzkopf. Colin Powell. Their skin color never made them great. Their actions made them great. Their bravery made them great. Their accomplishments made them great.”
“And our books highlight their accomplishments.”
“But these days, these books only remind us that we’re different!”
“Cynthia!” Ms. Johnson was exasperated. “You’re black, young lady! How could you think this is a bad idea!”
“I’M NOT BLACK!” Cynthia’s eyes grew. “I’m a person! A young person with a bright future! It doesn’t matter that I’m a girl or have charcoal skin, it matters that I have a pumping heart and red blood! That I walk this earth and speak her language. Stop telling me I’m black! I’m human! That’s what matters! That’s what connects me with this student and that student! I can do anything, regardless of what I look like!”
Ms. Johnson sighed. “We want other black people to know that they can do that, too!”
“Is that how you see me? As black?”
Ms. smiled. “Of course, honey.”
Cynthia sighed in resignation, sitting back in her chair, dropping her arms.. “And that’s why this country is still racist.”
Celebrating the history of Americans with black skin is important to our children, but not because they’re black. It’s because they made a difference. At some point in the evolution of two integrating cultures, there must come an end to special treatment in order to forcibly homogenize the divergent cultures. While there was a place and time to single out the accomplishments of Americans with dark skin, today we must stop singling them or anyone out due to their innate physical aspects (the hallmark of negative discrimination) and fully integrate all divergent histories into one tapestry of our ancestors, bound together through our mutual pursuit of freedom and the American dream of building your own future with your own two hands and intelligent mind. Never forget what they did, but make it American History, not African-American history, or Irish-American History. While there might be a place to remember in the cozy warmth of your home, in a government of the people, by the people and for the people, we must treat people as people first and only.
Is there still disparity and mistreatment? Yes. Is some of it still racist? Yes. But we have to start treating this less as racism and more as ignorance. Coloring the ignorance will only promote it. We have to treat it for the root, not the symptom. And never must we forget that it doesn’t matter what other people think of us, whether it is someone white belittling someone black or someone black belittling someone white, we are all people, and it’s not what people call you, but what you answer to. People aren’t black or white or yellow, they are humans deserving of respect. My tale is nothing more than an encouragement to end the celebration of our differences and promote the unity of that which brings all people together — love, life, family, friends and faith.