From Salon Owners to Ghetto Parties: Is Black History Month Even Working?

7 years ago

Earlier this month fellow BlogHer CE Kim Pearson wrote about the importance of Black History Month. She believes it provides the opportunity to retain and enhance the cultural significance of African-American history that everyone benefits from during the month-long celebration. While in theory I agree with her, the older I get, the more I wonder if it does any good. I don't think people are learning. Here is an example.

Last weekend I saw Chris Rock’s Good Hair. This was a free screening as part of Toronto’s Black History Month activities. What compelled me to go was the panel discussion taking place right after the documentary in which black salon owners would be sharing their observations. I loved the documentary, and for the most part, laughed my ass off. While I was still uncomfortable that a male comedian (whose wife is a big fan of the lace front) chose to combat a delicate subject, I enjoyed it.

The panel discussion consisted of two Toronto-based prominent black hair salon owners (the third panelist, who runs a natural hair care salon, didn’t show up). The questions that were posed were not that deep, but it was interesting how the owners answered the questions. To make a long story short, both panelists lied, not-so skillfully avoiding pointed questions or replying with answers like, “I’ve never even heard of that term, 'nappy.'”

Based on previous experience getting my hair done at one of their salons, I did not believe their assurances that every client gets a full consultation before her appointment and that they would never, ever perform a procedure that would damage a client’s hair.

Interestingly enough, both salon owners have reputations for being rip-off artists who run disorganized, overpriced salons. When questioned about how realistic the documentary was, they pointedly avoided the social implications and seemed more concerned about the percentage of lye in each bottle of relaxer.

They were not concerned with or interested in discussion of the more socially impacting elements of the film -- like the unsettling emotional attachment black women had to their hair pieces -- and went out of their way to avoid the issue. Neither the moderator nor the panelists wanted to discuss that a good portion of the hair sold in North America for human hair extensions comes from impoverished women in India –- granted, some of it is sold after it has been shorn in religious ceremonies, but there is also a thriving black market in which women have their hair "stolen" while sleeping or sitting in a darkened movie theatre. No one wanted to look at the fact that while the black hair industry is a billion-dollar business, hardly any of that money goes back into black communities.

And no one asked the question, "Why are black women getting our hair straightened, spending our money on weaves and wigs to conform to a beauty standard that we will never really achieve?" Based on John Mayer’s remarks about black female beauty, it seems like a fruitless attempt to make ourselves appealing for a world that doesn’t really give a shit about us.

A week earlier, I saw social / political activist Angela Davis speak. The crowd, primarily white, was rapt with attention, yet the two young black girls who sat beside me were too busy texting, chatting and surreptitiously taking pictures on their phones using flash –- even though the audience was explicitly told that no photos were to be taken. When the flash went off and irritated people turned around, the girls would duck down in their seats. This went on for duration of the 45-minute talk. I wanted to ask them if they knew how fortunate they were to even be able to hear this woman speak.

What bothered me about those irritations is not the spirit of Black History Month, but the cavalier attitude that my generation and younger generations seem to have towards it. The events that are put on in Toronto seem to be more focused on showcasing the same group of struggling black artists via meaningless talent shows (at least throw in some negro spirituals, please). That they constantly focus on the same issues (black/black relationships, interracial relationships, the importance of Martin Luther King, hip-hop and of course, Caribbean cooking) shows that the organizers either do not know anything about contemporary black culture or are too lazy to care.

But what is worse is that no one really seems to do anything. We are so wrapped up in creating this veil of appropriateness and black political correctness (or as I call it: the "what are white people going to think?" attitude). These are chances to have dynamic, open and frank discussions about our communities and what we can do to make them better for the next generation. We can talk about the social issues that plague our communities, put more emphasis on Canadian black history and even tackle more taboo subjects that "we" don’t really like to discuss (GBLT issues, alternative culture, music and education). But not only are the programmers not willing to put in the leg work, the audiences are becoming more apathetic. It is easier to leave an event and whine about the problems than it is to have a frank discussion with the event programmer about what needs to be improved.

I wonder if our inaction in improving our Black History Month programming and lack of frank discussion about race and racism is making other people apathetic about learning and respecting black history.  MomLogic also has issues with BHM, but for her, it is because the teachers at her children’s schools need to learn a bit more about the history they are teaching:

For example, one year my daughter, Kayla came home after seeing the Black History Month play at her mostly white private school. I asked her what she had learned from the play. Her response? "That slaves stole things, and they didn't know how to read or write." HUH?! My correction? "Slaves weren't allowed to read or write; they would have been killed for it." Big difference!

Please do not create more work for me by making me correct your history mistakes. (Quite frankly, I have enough to do.) I've spent years -- and earned multiple degrees -- studying your [white] history, so please take a few moments to get black history correct.

I should not have to send my children to the Benjamin Banneker/Malcolm X/Betty Shabazz/Booker T. Washington School for them to have an accurate Black History Month experience. (I won't even begin to expound on why African-American history isn't taught more all year 'round.)

If we took to really educating our children about Black History Month, this bulls$%it would stop happening. If we are going to be apathetic about a month acknowledging our ancestors, how do you think some white folks are going to act? From Field Negro, who reported on a Black History Month party given by white college students from the University of California, San Diego:

Is your imagery of black folks so messed up that this is the only way you can identify with something having to do with Black History Month? Then, of course, your image of black women doesn't seem to be any better:

"For girls: For those of you who are unfamiliar with ghetto chicks-Ghetto chicks usually have gold teeth, start fights and drama, and wear cheap clothes - they consider Baby Phat to be high class and expensive couture. They also have short, nappy hair, and usually wear cheap weave, usually in bad colors, such as purple or bright red. They look and act similar to Shenaynay, and speak very loudly, while rolling their neck, and waving their finger in your face. Ghetto chicks have a very limited vocabulary, and attempt to make up for it, by forming new words, such as "constipulated", or simply cursing persistently, or using other types of vulgarities, and making noises, such as "hmmg!", or smacking their lips, and making other angry noises, grunts, and faces. The objective is for all you lovely ladies to look, act, and essentially take on these "respectable" qualities throughout the day." [Story]

The above serves as a signifer that maybe it is time more emphasis is put on offering programming that acknowledges present-day issues. That might stop white college students from getting the idea that this type of behaviour is tolerated. Since every February and every Halloween there seems to be at least one group of white college students putting on the same type of party, it's clear that the message that Black History Month activities were thought to promote -- ones of tolerance and education -- are not working. But those changes have to come from within our communities. Because if this is what Black History Month represents to the greater society, we might be better off just quashing the whole thing.

Update about the above incident at UCSD:

UCSD's SRTV allegedly aired a program late Thursday night showing students calling those who stood up about the Compton Cookout party “ungrateful n----s.” According to the source, a note was also found on the TV studio floor that read “Compton lynching party.” That note was turned over to police.

Contributing EditorRace, Ethnicity & Culture

Blog: Writing is Fighting:

Writer: Hellbound:


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