We're Telling the Wrong Black History Month Stories

February 14th 2015

I've never much liked Black History Month. Maybe its because when I was a kid my elementary school teachers would make us color one picture of Martin Luther King and then allow all the other students to ask me, the one black kid in the room, to tell them what it was like to be black. Pro-tip for teachers: "Color a picture and then hand things off to a third grader" does not a lesson plan make. This happened to me multiple times, even at the college level. Maybe its because as a young actor, I would be pleased every January to suddenly be invited to audition at theatres that had consistently not had parts for me, only to realize... they were all Black History Month shows, and I wouldn't hear from any of those theatres for another year because they only wanted to hire black actors in February. Maybe its because every year at least one white person comes to me crying about a piece of black history they recently learned, and then wants me to comfort them about something they can't believe happened to a black person, when mostly I can't believe that they are surprised. But, I think I've finally figured out the real reason why I don't like Black History Month.

We're telling all the wrong stories.

Black History Month is the time we celebrate the achievements of black Americans, but all not of the achievements. Not even the most interesting ones. Just the ones that can be most neatly folded into a narrative of continual progress. We'd like to believe that racism is over in this country, so once a year we trot out all the same stories of black triumph over adversity and celebrate the happy endings. But racism isn't over. And the road of progress isn't a straight line; it bends, and winds around; it sometimes makes a sharp U-turn and heads back in the wrong direction. The tangible increase in racial tension following the election of our first African American president is a perfect example of that. But we're more comfortable talking about race in terms of progress. And so, after spending each February fielding invitations to work at theatres that put on all white shows the other eleven months of the year, hearing people say "Wow, we've come so far" in response to old black and white protest pictures that look suspiciously like Ferguson; and after celebrating the passage of civil rights laws that most people don't realize have been weakened in recent years, talking reverently about the day we "ended segregation" as if most black children don't still go to all black schools; and after watching the nation give itself a collective pat on the back for how good things are in 2015 when I spent most of 2014 crying myself to sleep over Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Aiyana Jones, John Crawford, and Rekia Boyd, I end up spending this month getting more upset about the way things are and less interested in talking about the way they used to be.

And my pointing out that things are still not equal doesn't mean that I don't revere the historical figures who fought so hard for every improvement they were able to make. I appreciate the progress that has been made and work that has been done. How many countries can say that a group of people that were almost universally enslaved now has equal protections under the law? That is amazing. I can appreciate that at the same time as I acknowledge there are other ways, not addressed by the law, in which black people are still not treated as equals. And while there has been progress in some of those areas, we don't tend to tell those stories as much during Black History Month because they are complex and don't have the neat happy ending that we crave at this time of year. So, this Black History Month, I offer you the messy, unresolved, not at all neat, but still totally inspiring, alternative history of one of our most beloved black leaders.

The Alternative History of Rosa Parks

Get ready to have your mind blown: Rosa Parks didn't just happen to stay seated on the front of the bus that day by accident, it was staged. Also, she wasn't old. I don't know why our collective memory has painted her as an old lady too tired to get out of her seat that day. Probably because we are more comfortable with that image than with the real one. Rosa Parks was a 42 year old activist who purposely wanted to start some trouble that day. Ever since I started learning more about her, I stopped picturing her as a little old lady shivering in a shawl on the bus, and started picturing her walking in slo-mo to a sick bass line with a Pam Grier-esque trench coat blowing in the wind while an exploded bus burns in the background behind her. Feel free to borrow that image.

When Rosa Parks started the Montgomery Bus Boycott, she had already been involved in civil rights activism for over twenty years. In 1943 she was elected secretary (the only position it was acceptable for a woman to hold at the time) of the Montgomery NAACP. As part of her duties, she traveled around the South documenting and investigating sexual crimes against black women. She was a lady detective! She became known as the person you called when a black woman was attacked. Why? Because at the time there was little to no chance of the police believing a black woman had been raped. Hell, we only barely believe women when they say they are raped now. In addition, there was very little chance that white police officers were going to take a black person's word over a white person's in any situation — particularly in the case of rape. Mostly thanks to a persistent belief that black women were "un-rapeable" given the fact that they "always wanted it," which served to excuse the abuses visited upon black women that were considered immoral when done to white women. The myth of unrapeability allowed white men to rape black women without guilt and without punishment for a long time. Rosa Parks and the NAACP wanted to change this, so they looked for the best cases to court the media's attention. The hope was that by getting the media to write about some of these rapes, police departments and judicial systems would be forced to prosecute. But, to counteract the pervasive stereotype, they only wanted to bring attention to cases where it was less likely that the victim would be blamed for her own assault. That's where Rosa Parks came in: she traveled around collecting stories, helping advocate for the women, and calling attention to the cases that would be good ones to try in the media.

She was already an activist for decades when 15-year-old Claudette Colvin refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white person in March of 1955. Colvin — who was inspired by the "Negro History" lessons she had been learning in school — was dragged off the bus and arrested. But, she was an unmarried teen mother at the time and therefore not considered an appropriate option to be the face of a movement, according to local NAACP boss, E.D. Dixon. That role was given to Parks — Dixon's secretary at the time. And that's why, nine months later, it was Parks and not Colvin who got on a bus and changed history.

Why isn't this the story we're taught in school?

Probably because it doesn't have a neat and linear happy ending. Victim blaming is still a pervasive issue in this country, so telling the story of Rosa Parks as a rape victim advocate could dissuade people's appreciation of her. Why do we pretend that Rosa Parks choosing not to get off the bus was unplanned? Because we're more comfortable imagining a quiet, old, black woman finding courage in a spontaneous moment than we are celebrating a brilliant, media-savvy, professional activist purposely starting a revolution. And buses are still segregated: sure anyone can sit wherever they want on them but mostly poor people take them. And since discrimination is still a huge problem in this country, people of color are still more likely than whites to be poor. Segregation has moved from being in our laws, to being a more insidious and complex social phenomenon. The way segregation happens today no longer fits into a neat narrative of progress. We can pretend racism is over, or we can spend Black History Month celebrating the people who have taken great strides to change it, while acknowledging that it still exists. And maybe then, we can widen our knowledge of black history, and tell our stories with all the richness and complexity that they contain.

If you're interested in reading more about Rosa Parks' activism, check out the book, At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance-- A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power by Danielle McGuire.