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It Matters | Black History Month and ‘Erasure’

Blackness can't be ignored or explained away

Published on Friday, February 7, 2020 | 4:53 am

In 2005, actor Morgan Freeman voiced his opinion on Black History Month during an interview with Mike Wallace for the show 60 Minutes. In a word, he called it “ridiculous.”

Freeman elaborated: Black history is American History, and so shouldn’t be delegated to a single month where we pay attention to it. Wallace pushed back: how’re we supposed to end racism without it? Freeman responded, “Stop talking about it. I’m going to stop calling you a white man. And I’m going to ask you to stop calling me a black man. I know you as Mike Wallace. You know me as Morgan Freeman. You’re not going to say, ‘I know this white guy named Mike Wallace.’ Hear what I’m saying?”

You can watch the moment here.

I first came across this quote and Freeman’s interview in high school, about five or six years after he’d given it. In early 2005 I was just 11 years old, probably didn’t have a clear idea of who Morgan Freeman was outside of Bruce Almighty, and though I’d already undergone some racially-charged experiences in my life, I was still at a stage where I didn’t think of “black” as an important descriptor of myself. By the time I was 16 or 17, though, Mr. Freeman and I were of the same mind: I often told people I didn’t want to be seen or thought of as “black” before anything else: “black girl,” “black friend,” “black student,” “black kid.” I was just Kathryn.

I thought this mindset fit for many years. I thought I had a clear perspective. I thought I had a strong point. Now, let me be clear: I did have a point. Morgan Freeman has a point. The desire he and I were voicing is valid and true and deserves attention. But when I went back and read an essay I wrote in college called “Defiance,” in which I recount a moment during my junior year of high school when a new friend regarded me as his “black friend,” I realized that what I and Morgan Freeman were practicing was erasure.

I didn’t quite know how to process this, so I wrote about it, and I produced an essay of the same name: “Erasure,” for my master’s thesis where I talked about all the moments of overt prejudice and racism that I endured and ignored and explained away, and how wrong I was for handling myself that way. I no longer agreed with my teenage self; now it was 2017, I was almost 24 and in grad school, and in the time since being 17, I learned that my race — my blackness — matters. Not as a qualifier, or descriptor, or disclaimer, but because it is a bigger and more important part of myself than I realized. My blackness is my history and heritage and story, and it shapes and has shaped each of my experiences. It must matter to me not just because I’m black, but because I know I live in a world that will always see me as black first.

“Erasure” was soon published online in Linden Avenue Literary Journal in 2018, and then revised to become a part of my debut book, Black Was Not A Label in 2019, and I’m still learning from it. In writing the essay, I faced how I stifled myself and my black identity. I embraced the parts of myself I tried to pretend are unimportant.

Like myself and Mr. Freeman, America has practiced erasure, but to the point of devastation. For this reason, and this reason alone, Black History Month is still important. A focused period of time when the history of black people and how we have contributed to a country that used our bodies, families, and souls to commit its original sin is needed to show people that blackness matters, that it is good, that it is capable, beautiful, intelligent, and worthy. That our history is American history, and it is important.

Does this mean that discussions, lessons, ideas, art exhibitions, and projects about black history should only be delegated to February? Absolutely not. Will there be a day when Black History Month is no longer necessary? I hope so. Because that day will mean that our history is acknowledged and taught as widely and richly as America’s white history. It won’t only be a specialization or emphasis for college students, but will truly be what it has always been: an integral part of the interwoven fabric that is America.





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