February 19, 2013

HARRINGTON: The Politics of Invisibility

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Throughout the vast majority of my primary and secondary education, seeing a black or brown body in a history textbook was as rare as Cornell cancelling classes for snow. Whenever I did see a person of color in a textbook that wasn’t a shackled slave or a savagely depicted First American, they, likely Dr. King or Rosa Parks, were forced into a tiny square situated in the margins of history.  Consistently depicted as a side note that was disconnected from the “real’ American narrative, people of color have been systematically and deliberately deleted from American history.  However, when February comes around, the reality supposedly changes.

Black History Month, first started by Carter G. Woodson in 1926 as “Negro History Week,” was the only time of year I was taught about select black Americans who were revolutionary enough to be included, but mild enough to not overly threaten the normative American narrative.  I use the word “select” because as I began to self-educate myself on my people’s history, I slowly realized that the black history I did learn in school was over-simplified and purposefully made benign. I never learned much beyond Rosa Parks’ sitting on the bus, Dr. King’s Dream, the lies about Malcolm X and slavery.  However, something is better than nothing, so I cherished Black History Month, for allowing me to see my darker hue as somewhat American too.  In spite of this, every year I would transition into March with one question unanswered by my teachers: Why isn’t black history, or the history of any marginalized group, integrated into the rest of the curriculum?

The answer lies in the politics of invisibility — deeming bodies legitimate by making their privileged identities so universal they become invisible.  In America, normal has been painted to be an upper-middle class, straight, white, Protestant, cisgender man.  To be the coveted All-American, you must exist within this paradigm.  You are the lawyer instead of the woman lawyer, the doctor instead of the black doctor, the professor instead of the lesbian professor.  You are the host of the party because while your guests are hyphenated-Americans, you, my friend, are American.

To be white, or straight, or male, or cisgender, or upper-middle class, is to be the standard. It’s the reason why every class I’ve taken at Cornell that doesn’t pertain to straight, white men has the word “gay” or “woman” or “American Indian,” “Latino” or “Black” in front of it.  If I wanted to study the work of Maya Angelou, its unlikely that I would do so in a class called Major Poets.  That class would be reserved for Robert Frost, Walt Whitman, maybe Emily Dickinson if the instructor was into “diversity,” but the poets would likely all be white.  Frost, Whitman and Dickinson are, of course, brilliant, but so is Maya Angelou.  Removing these vital perspectives is political.  It makes the statement that the literary work of anyone who does not fit the narrowly defined standard is not fully legitimate.  This reality is why disciplines such as ethnic studies, women’s studies and LGBT studies must exist.  Just last week The Cornell Review published an article boldly asking “Is Africana Studies Relevant …?” proving once again the ways in which the politics of invisibility work to delegitimize and silence certain voices in academia.

Now let’s bring this back to Black History Month.  Due to common teaching styles, this politics of invisibility is frequently reinforced.  It encourages the study of a history without asking the critical question of why “(insert any minority name here) history” was separated from history in the first place.  These are the questions we’ve been told not to ask. So, the next time someone asks you whether or not Black History Month should exist, I hope you’ll tell them that they’re asking the wrong question.  Tell them to stop looking amongst the branches and start discovering the roots.

Ashley Harrington is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at aharrington@cornellsun.com. Dancing in the Margins appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.

Original Author: Ashley Harrington