In early February, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s 1984 medical school yearbook page, featuring a photo of a person in blackface and another in a KKK hood, made national news. Gov. Northam initially apologized and inexplicably denied that it was he in the offensive photo.
The incident sparked a comprehensive review of more than 900 college/university yearbooks at 120 schools across the country by USA Today. Reporters collected more than 200 examples of offensive or racist material at a variety of colleges from large public universities to elite private colleges.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, images of blatant racism on campuses were memorialized in yearbooks by jovial white students in blackface or those who donned KKK hoods to simulate and/or celebrate mock lynchings. Of all of the images, perhaps the one I found most shocking was a photo from the 1981 University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne yearbook wherein a black man is smiling and holding a beer while posing with three people in full KKK regalia. He appears jubilant with a large noose around his neck. Clearly, he believed the photo was “all in good fun.”
How could a young black man allow himself to actively participate in the outright mockery of the horrific acts of domestic terrorism visited upon African Americans scarcely more than two decades prior to the photo being taken? What could possibly explain the ignorant, irreverent behavior on the part of a descendant of slaves? It was such a painful intellectual disconnect for me that I finally had to concede that the behavior was simply…inexplicable.
Two weeks later, the answer would crystallize for me. News outlets around the country broke the story of a fifth grade field trip to a cotton field in South Carolina, where 10-year-olds were directed to pick cotton while chanting “I like it when you fill your sack; I like it when you don’t talk back; make money for me; make money for me….” Still worse, the young person who picked the least amount of cotton, had to hold the largest bag, aptly referred to as “Big Mama.”
The most painful aspect of this appalling “field trip” was that it was orchestrated by African Americans!
Again, African Americans were willing participants in a modern day minstrel show. The video that was released of the school children picking cotton and singing slave songs appeared to make a game of the slavery re-enactment. And then it hit me; the systematic desensitization of our children to slavery, lynching and other horrific and inhumane treatment experienced by people of color in this country result in a psychological numbness to the same. Our children are intellectually anesthetized and robbed a full understanding of the African American experience in our country.
School children are taught about benevolent masters who treated slaves as family members rather than the horrific brutality of beatings, rapes and murder of their ancestors for the love of money. It is the quintessential “white washing” of our history that enables young black Americans to fail to understand the enormity of our historic oppression and to respect and revere those who died for them to have the opportunity to attend the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne and go to frat parties where the brutal murders of their ancestors are toasted to and mocked.
We send our children to schools that may formally educate their minds but consistently starve their spirits and their souls. They are taught about George Washington but seldom about George Washington Carver. The Middle Passage, Slavery, Jim Crow and Civil Rights are summed up in a single unit that highlights Martin Luther King Jr. and, for gender balance, Rosa Parks is often mentioned. They float untethered by the bonds of history and the responsibility to make manifest the dreams of their long departed ancestors, many of whom died without ever experiencing formal education, earning a living wage or casting a vote without fear of reprisal.
We celebrate the black middle class who have prospered as a result of the sacrifices of the generations before them and repaid that sacrifice by fully assimilating into a culture that neither respects or values us as equals.
The truth of our history and the boundless contributions of African Americans in society are seldom amplified. Still worse, the benevolence of a color-blind majority is taught and our children are lulled into believing that the atrocities of slavery and Jim Crow are largely overstated or worse, exaggerated.
What then, must we do? In my mind the answer is clear – black people must take ownership of our own history. Mockery of our ancestors and their suffering should be regarded as the highest form of blasphemy. Preserving our narrative must become our primary responsibility, never to be delegated to others.
Moreover, we must “call out” black people who are unwitting or worse, intentional participants in the twisting and mockery of our history.
I believe that our nation’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities are the living, breathing manifestation of the African American lived experience in this country. The black middle class referred to above was largely produced on the campuses of these venerable institutions. Our schools bear living witness to the fact that a thorough understanding of our own history leads to positive self- image, academic and social success, as well as professional and economic prosperity for people of color.
And yet, these institutions teeter on the brink of extinction due to unyielding economic pressure. If these valuable treasures are permitted to die, a significant piece of our history will die with them.
On these campuses lynching is not celebrated, blackface is not common, and the teaching of slave songs occurs in a far different context than the fifth grade field trip referred to above. These campuses, in my opinion, are the last remaining institutions of African American empowerment, excellence and economic advancement. We must protect them…for our children and for generations to come.
I believe in black people and I believe in the power of HBCUs to positively impact black people. If you share this commitment, please connect with an HBCU – volunteer your time and talent; mentor a student; teach a class; hire a graduate; or make a gift. Your investment will yield a calculable dividend and will help to ensure that our children understand the full measure of their value.
We are not the butt of jokes or the stars of minstrel shows. We are descendants of royalty, and of those slaves whose indomitable spirit survived American genocide and bondage.
Black History Month 2019 has let us down. We should never let it happen again.
Dr. Roslyn Clark Artis is the 14th President of Benedict College.