February is said to be a month dedicated to ‘Black History’. As I ponder the implications of this, I recount my crisis at a local Social Security Administration Office a few months after arriving in the USA.
It was a bright and crisp spring day. As I stood at the counter, I was nervous and baffled by the question that prevented me from completing the application for my Social Security Number. I could read and understand English perfectly well. That was not the problem. What puzzled me was a simple question about my race.
Up until that time, I had always thought of myself as a human being, male, a child of my parents and belonging to a tribe of prominence. The word ‘race’ made sense to me, but now it seemed not to resonate with me.
There were a number of boxes to check. After scanning them with the eye of a Forensic Scientist, I could not easily settle on which one to check. Suddenly, it occurred to me that the ‘other’ box would be an appropriate choice, all the while feeling so much reduced by the limiting description on the form. This was an incredibly awkward feeling.
Being unsure about what I did, I erased the check mark – no computers then – and summoned for help. A middle-age lady with the stature and authority of the imposing Liberty Statue gingerly approached me. After hearing my cry for help she stared at me blankly, walked over to another employee and said something to her. They both then looked at me and giggled. I was more bewildered at this point. They both approached me and asked whether I was serious about my indecision concerning the race question. After asserting that I did not see my race listed among the group, they directed me to check the ‘Black’ box, all along making cavalier gestures. Here I was, making a decision about how to be categorized in the USA and they did not think it was a big deal!
I was churning inside as I knew I was not ‘Black’. To me black was (and still is) a color and, although my complexion is that of 70% cocoa dark chocolate, I did not look anywhere near the color black I had in mind. Again, in my mind, ‘Black’ was a reference, a slang, or a term exclusively reserved for Americans who looked like me. I drew this conclusion from my years of listening to James Brown’s “Say it Loud . . . I’m Black and Proud”.
So with a lot of reluctance I decided the only box that fit me was the ‘Other’ box. I checked it and handed over the form. ‘Lady Liberty’, as I had come to take note mentally, accepted the form and shot me a look that conveyed, “you must be crazy!” She followed it up with an ”are you sure that is the box you want?” To which I affirmed, “I don’t see my race listed. And it’s not asking for my tribe, so ‘other’ is the best I can do!”
Little did I know that, that was the beginning of my journey into the complex American racial discourse. My encounter was several years ago but the debate has taken on many more turns since then. This leads me to the issue of Black History month.
Why is there a Black history month? This, to me is ridiculous. Why do we relegate the history of the ‘Black’ people to only one month? What happens the other eleven months? I thought ‘Blacks’ were a part of America and therefore their history a part of the American history?
I understand the sinister attempt at obscuring or even obliterating historical facts. But is that the only effective way to register the existence of a people?
And why must we (the human race) settle for the color ‘black’ or ‘white’ instead of who we truly are? I have seen people who look closer to the color pink but never ‘white’ people, the same way I have never seen any ‘black’ people.
Sadly, I have to admit that there are deeper and complex issues surrounding race and Black History Month. But where real progress will be made is when we boldly gaze into the face of the one who created all humankind, the God of this universe, and begin to see all people the way He sees them. An honest admission of where we really are now, will also be a pivotal first step.
So as I battle with whether to tacitly accept ‘Black’ as my race, I just can’t help but ask over and over again, whether I am really Black!