A column, a math question and Black History Month

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The position of Blacks in North America is different than many other ethnicities. Our oppression and subjugation occurred here.

If a national columnist had written his wholly misinformed article, or a math question about Condoleezza Rice and a watermelon had been made public in February, then this would be a very timely article. Unfortunately — or perhaps fortunately — that was not the case.

Now, in May 2006, I will defend the existence and purpose of Black History Month.

Let's begin with the wholly misinformed columnist.

A recent article in the National Post responded to a Toronto Star feature on ghetto crime. The Star feature delved into the reasons a 16-year-old black male joined a local gang.

In response to the Star's article, a National Post columnist makes numerous stunning — and misguided — generalizations. I will respond to only two. First he notes, “In Toronto's poorest (read: blackest) communities, being a working stiff is viewed widely with contempt.” Second, the author continues, “It is not 'isolation and despair' that cause men to abandon their children — but rather the disgraceful fact that such behaviour is accepted by certain sub-cultures.”

Wow, perhaps this white male knows something this black female does not. In the neighbourhood I grew up in (read: poor and ethnically diverse), working stiffs (read: my mother) were not viewed with contempt. Instead they were admired. To state that working stiffs are “widely” viewed with contempt is to suggest the majority of black people in these neighbourhoods don't work. They and I would beg to differ.

The “working stiffs” of Toronto's poorest neighbourhoods, however, are not the subject of Hollywood movies, music videos or any other pop culture medium. Instead, society has determined that to be black and successful you must either be an entertainer or an athlete; that's the message young black people receive daily. Perhaps this articulate columnist should turn his ire on the corporate structure (read: white male dominated) that continues to disseminate these messages instead of on young black men who are simply living up to professionally packaged and distributed stereotypes.

Further, the problem of black men not remaining active participants in their children's lives is a real problem. No one can deny that. To say this problem occurs far too often with far too many consequences is accurate. To say, however, there is a “subculture” that accepts this occurrence is wholly misinformed.

The issue of black men not being involved in their children's lives is one that has existed for hundreds of years. Elaine Pinderhuges, in a 2002 article notes, “Slave fathers of children were not named or listed in birth records. Only the slave mother's name and the name of the mother's owner were recorded.” Slavery fostered a new cultural reliance on women as the head of the household and instituted the subconscious belief that the role of fathers was unnecessary to child-rearing or to the establishment of a strong family unit.

The black family has struggled since slavery to rediscover and re-establish itself. It is a struggle we continue today, and it is a struggle, I assure you, we will win. There is no “subculture” that accepts this behaviour. This very important community struggle should not be so callously misrepresented by those who obviously do not understand it.

Now, the issue of Condoleezza and the watermelon. In all fairness, perhaps the math teacher at Bellevue Community College in Washington State was truly unaware of the negative stereotype the question on a math exam about Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and a watermelon so clearly articulated. After all, generally speaking, there seemed to be as many people who were aware of the stereotype as were unaware.

Here's the question:

    Condoleezza holds a watermelon just over the edge of the roof of the 300 -foot Federal Building, and tosses it up with a velocity of 20 feet per second. The height of the watermelon above the ground t seconds later is given by formula h= -16t2 + 20t + 300.

    a. How many seconds will it pass her (she's standing at a height of 300 feet) on the way down?

    b. When will the watermelon hit ground?

For those of you who still don't know what all the fuss is about, the article “Talking Race Over a Slice of Watermelon” offers some clarification:

    Since the earliest days of plantation slavery, the caricature of the dark-skinned black child, his too-red lips stretched to grotesque extremes as they opened to chomp down on watermelon, was a staple of racism's diet. Over time, the watermelon became a symbol of the broader denigration of black people. It became part of the image perpetuated by a white culture bent upon bolstering the myth of superiority by depicting the inferior race as lazy, simple-minded pickaninnies [children] interested only in such mindless pleasures as a slice of sweet watermelon.

The ramifications of this stereotype continue to this day. Periodically our community is faced with another “scientific” theory that “proves” our inferior intelligence, or a national article that states many within our community contemptuously views “working stiffs.” This stereotype is not a thing of the past; there are many who will not let it die.

Here is where Black History Month has a pivotal role to play. Black History Month must return to the original intent of its founder Dr. Carter G. Woodson: to correctly recognize and document the black experience.

It is essential that Black History Month remain intact. The position of Blacks in North America is different than many other ethnicities. Our oppression and subjugation occurred here. The necessity of education to prevent those roots from taking hold again is more dire for Blacks than for other ethnicities whose histories are different. To suggest otherwise is a dangerous proposition.

Black History Month must ensure that our unique experience is never forgotten or usurped and our current existence is understood in context. Certainly, education would have helped our misinformed columnist and our stunned math teacher.

Recently, a woman on a local talk show questioned if she had offended her Black friends by suggesting they buy a watermelon when it was on sale. My dear lady, you are not who I worried about, but you are who I am talking about. Well-intentioned individuals like this lady need to be educated enough to feel comfortable with their behaviour. Influential columnists in national newspapers need to be educated enough not to make overly generalized, misinformed and callous statements.

Finally, we must all be educated enough to spot and call attention to potentially dangerous people like the math teacher at Bellevue Community College.

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