The MLK Day celebration in Savage Arena became an annual staple on my calendar.
As a child in Africa, I read about Harriet Tubman’s bravery during the civil war. After all, Ghana’s Asante Kingdom had its own legend in Yaa Asantewaa, the female warrior who led the charge against European imperialism.
I read W. E. B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington. I also memorized Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and studied his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”
What eloquence and foresight! Of course, I read the critical narrative on Malcom X’s “inappropriate” radicality. These among others were the definition of black excellence and achievement. Admittedly so.
Despite what I thought I knew, being a black man from Africa, I cannot pretend to fully understand the struggle and resilience of the African-American.
When I first arrived in America, I tried to learn as much I could about these people with whom, clearly, I share ancestors.
TV programming, podcasts and articles became my allies. But I don’t think I was prepared for the number of stereotypes I encountered, and I was not even naïve to stereotypes.
Remember I come from Africa where almost everyone has AIDS, children starved to death, we’re always killing each other over the stupidest excuses and our homes hung between trees. Yes, I heard and was asked about them all.
Yet, the number of stereotypes about African-Americans was overwhelming. It was as if these people made no contribution to American society, apart from having children they cannot provide for and siphoning the public purse through perpetual dependence on welfare.
The general idea of black identity became synonymous to being ignorant, lazy, academically weak, prone to criminality and poverty.
I heard so much about absentee black fathers, single-parent homes, unintelligent and simple-minded black children growing to inevitably take their place in the gangs and prison complexes.
The black woman played a big role in that. She controlled and pushed men away from the home. She possessed little to no maternal compassion and only had children so she could cash in on those welfare and child-support checks.
As I continued to accumulate my years in America, I realized that the prevailing narrative lacked merit. Daily, I experienced successful and responsible black men and women in my neighborhood, my church, my school and in checkout line at the grocery store.
Yet, the unfoundedly negative portrayal of black people continued.
Unfortunately, that made it difficult for some of these successful black people, the ones that the dominant narrative ignores, to proudly assert their blackness.
Sadly, they’re conscious of being the “exception.” They take pride in being perceived as anything but black in their attitude, the tone of their voice, the friends they keep or even in where they live. I don’t say this only about blacks born in America but also about blacks that came from the African continent.
In all honesty though, I can’t blame them but the society that makes them into what they do. The thinking seems to be that being black means being evil or being predisposed to socially pathological behavior.
So much of what we do or become and the opportunities we have depend on just how much people think our ideas, mannerisms or aspirations fit the “mainstream culture,” which is anything but black.
I’m not fantasizing about a perfect black culture because that is not possible. We cannot expect perfection from any group of people. This is exactly what is wrong with taking isolated behavior of a few people and equating that with the behavior of what every member of that group is.
Perpetuating black stereotypes, and even educated people do this, means that we’re more willing to give other people the benefit of the doubt while denying black people that second chance opportunity simply because of the color of their skin. That is a travesty.
By attending programs like MLK Day celebration, listening to revisionist narratives about black people and engaging more with the black community, I better appreciate the issues of African-Americans and their contributions to social and economic life.
People like the Obamas, LeBron James, Oprah Winfrey, Denzel Washington, Ben Carson and Elijah Cummins, among a multitude of black people living accomplished family, political and business lives, continue to inspire me.
It shouldn’t be hard to give credit where it’s due unless we’re still so blinded by our attachment to unfounded stereotypes.
The black boy or girl is capable of whatever any other boy or girl is capable of. Let us not be quick to write people off.
So when you see that black man or woman down the street, don’t be quick to assume that he or she is poor. Don’t assume that their children will grow without their parents or that they will end up in the gangs or in prison.
Black people are not a burden on society, that idea is preposterous. They bring so much more to the table.
Long live black excellence. Long live black ingenuity.