Cleopatra, Jesus and Maya Angelou
"Racism is not going anywhere for awhile. Don't let it paralyze you. You have to keep moving...around it, between it, and over it; just never beneath it." -Roxroy Anderson
Recently, when a white female identifying conference speaker opened her remarks with the statement, "Maya Angelou was a great American poet" at first listen, I felt a sense of validation. Maya Angelou was being embraced as an American without the qualifier, "African". However, almost as quickly as I had that thought, I had another. Perhaps it was really important that the people in the room know that Maya Angelou was an African-American woman. Might there be some who assumed she was white because the speaker had not explicitly stated that she was not?
When I was growing up, in most educational settings, a person's race was only explicitly stated if they were not White. In my experience of American society white = human. In novels, in plays, even history books, that a person is white is rarely explicitly stated. Instead it is assumed that the characters, the historical figures, are white. My teachers never told me that George Washington was a white man, but they did tell me that Fredrick Douglas was an "African-American who...".
With all the recent talk about how race is a social construct, there is still the reality that pillars of society such as business, government, religion, and education operate within a racist framework that ultimately benefits white and white adjacent people while harming people of color. Race matters, at least in the world as we know it. At first glance, to name Maya Angelou as a great American poet without mentioning that she was a Black woman, an African-American woman, is a sign of racial progress. It is a reminder that perhaps race is just a social construct. However, take a second look, and the failure to name her race might be the subconscious practice of white-washing.
White-washing is the practice of attributing the historical contributions of people of color to whites and white adjacent people. It is a subtle process that often begins with not naming the race of the historical figure, then perhaps depicting him, her or they as racially ambiguous or white all-together, in illustrations, films, etc... Examples: Alexander Dumas (author of The Three Musketeers and other classics whom educators failed to mention was Black), Jesus or Yeshua (often represented with blonde hair and blue eyes although he is described in sacred texts with hair like wool and feet like brass) and Cleopatra (an Egyptian* Queen depicted in an iconic film by actress Elizabeth Taylor).
It seems important to recognize Maya Angelou, not only as a great American poet, but as a great African-American poet. Doing so, not only guards against white-washing, but provides necessary space for Black children to see themselves as potential contributors to the rich culture of this country. It creates space for children of other races to see that too. But most importantly it peels away the stigma of seeing and naming race.
What do you think?
*Egypt is in Africa.