January 27, 2020

WAITE | The Trivialization of Black History

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On the first day of classes, my ASRC 2650 professor commented on the title of his  course: African American Literature. He made a quick joke about how peculiar it would be if literature classes simply entitled “Literature”, were instead titled “Euro-American Literature.” The joke was that whiteness is so pervasively the norm that this class on American literature needed to distinguish itself as black or else it would be assumed to be white. It was one of those jokes that is both funny and slightly depressing. Every POC in the class, including myself, chuckled.

This reminded me of a conversation I had my sophomore year of high school. I was sitting on the bus headed to track practice with my friend, teammate and fellow peer in my AP U.S. History class. We both had our phones in our hands and were playing Trivia Crack.  Stumped by one of the questions prompted by the game, my friend turned the screen towards me, nudged me and said, “Here, you should know this one.” The trivia question on the screen read: ‘What US Supreme Court case ruled racial segregation in schools unconstitutional?’

She was right. I immediately knew the correct answer without even looking at the four possible answer choices. I also knew that my friend assumed I would know the answer to the question because I am black.

Since I am black, and clearly knew the answer, overtly there is not much of a problem — although she probably should have known this answer as well. Never mind the fact that we were both in the same “advanced” U.S. History class; my friend should have known because that 1954 Supreme Court decision affected her educational experience just as much as it did mine. Which is what I replied as I clicked “Brown v. Board of Education” on her phone screen.  She shrugged, I sighed.

I am not faulting my friend for not knowing a trivia answer  in a game. After all, the definition of trivia is “information of little importance or value.” And while I would certainly argue that the details and considerations of Brown v. BOE is of extremely significant importance and value, that is not really the point. The point, rather, is how much more surprising — and perhaps interesting — this story would be if my friend was a person of color. If my friend was black, the response to her lack of knowledge about a revolutionary progression in our nation’s struggle for equality would not be a shrug or explanation of the definitional insignificance of trivia, but  instead an inquiry into why this 16-year-old girl did not know her ‘own’ history. But my friend was white, so the stakes to know a history — that is just as equally hers as it is mine — is for some reason lessened.

This speaks to the larger problem of intolerance, ignorance and continual denial in this country. People  cannot grow and learn from a history they do not know. And they cannot know a history that they have not yet accepted as their own.

As James Baldwin once said, “Whatever white people do not know about [black people] reveals, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves.”

Now that the beautiful month of black history is on the horizon, I feel it is important to remember how deeply entwined African American history is in American history. The events, details and champions that define black history define the strengths and weaknesses of the history of this nation. Black history is not merely the most intense rendition of American history, it is truly the most accurate and extensive rendition. Black history in America is not niche. Although it’s called Black History Month, the accomplishments that were made and the injustices that were overcome should not  be celebrated or acknowledged solely by black people, but by everyone.

Sidney Malia Waite is a sophomore in the College of Industrial and Labor Relations. She can be reached at swaite@cornellsun.com. Waite, What? runs every other Tuesday this semester.