Saturday, February 5, 2011

Understanding Morgan Freeman on Black History Month

Morgan Freeman's misunderstood and misused "I don't want a Black History Month" quote during an interview with Morley Safer on 60 Minutes is begging for clarification. Let's break down his six statements which, in context, show clearly that what he's really saying is not that Black History Month is not useful, but that Black History is all-encompassing and should be considered normative rather than marginal.

1.    "I don't want a Black History Month."
2.    "You're going to relegate my history to a month?"
3.    "Which month is White History Month? When is Jewish History Month?"
4.    [on Racism]. "Stop talking about it."
5.    "I'm going to stop calling you a 'white man'. I'm going to ask you to stop calling me a 'black man'."
6.    "Black history is American history."

First, here's the video:

1. I Don't Want a Black History Month

First, saying "I don't want a Black History Month" is not unlike saying "I don't want a cast on my leg." For people like Morgan Freeman who can walk just fine, he doesn't need one. But not everyone can walk like he can. For those who have a broken leg, the cast is necessary. All I'm saying here is not wanting something doesn't make it unnecessary and, sometimes, what we don't want (eat our veggies, take our medicine, go to bed early...) are  still good for us or, at least, better than the alternatives. However, this statement can only be misleading if divorced from the context of the rest of the interview. Why doesn't he want a Black History Month? He answers this question in the next statement.

2. "You're going to relegate my history to a month?"

Clearly, he's criticizing the implication that Black history is limited to a month's worth of attention. What he refers to as "my history" extends beyond a single monthly observation. It's a call to celebrate Black history every month. This assertion is plainly buttressed by his next statement.

3. "Which month is White History Month? Which month is Jewish History Month?"

Both groups of people celebrate their history without end, and tell everyone else about it. Neither group waits for or stops after a designated month when it comes to their history. 

Mr. Freeman clearly suggests that Black history is equally worthy of the same approach. 

When Mr. Freeman asks Mr. Safer if he wants a White/Jewish History Month, Mr. Safer says "No, no!" Do a Youtube search - there's not a single hit mentioning this, no one is misinterpreting or asserting "Morley Safer doesn't want Jewish History Month!" because there is none, because they don't need one, because they observer their history - and teach others about it - regularly.

4. [On Racism] "Stop talking about it."

Would that we could. But even if we could, it wouldn't change the fact that Morgan Freeman is Black, and Morley Safer is Jewish. Notice how abruptly Mr. Safer interjects to clarify "I'm Jewish" (he would, evidently, not express an opinion about 'White History Month" because he sees himself as Jewish, not White). Issues people face as a direct result of being...whatever they are, will continue to exist.

Ask a Jewish person if "not talking about the Holocaust" is the best way to ensure it doesn't happen again. Ask a battered woman if "not talking about physical abuse" will make it go away. Ask a molested child if...ask the mother of a child who was a victim of drunk-driving if not talking about drinking and driving will make it go away. With all due respect to Mr. Freeman, "not talking about it" won't make it go away any more than not talking about a brain tumour will make it go away. In fact, if we don't talk about it, it'll not only stay but further entrench itself in hiring practices and other points of interface between races. 

This is one point with which I did not agree wholesale with Mr. Freeman, however, it has been noted that Mr. Freeman seldom takes acting roles that are "stereotypically Black" or require a Black actor to fill, or in which the character's being Black is an issue in the plot or any subtexts of the plot. And, in this, I respect him, because it elevates the opportunity for Black actors to do more, and encourages writers to see Black characters as characters.

5. "I'm going to stop calling you a White man, and I'm going to ask you to stop calling me a Black man."

For Mr. Freeman, this idea - "stop calling me a Black man" - doesn't mean he disregards that he is Black; he began this discussion by asking the question, "are you going to relegate my history to a month?" He is a Black man, he embraces his history as a function of his person, and feels no need to wait for or quit after an external calendar designation announces he's now free to learn about and share his history.

I do, appreciate, however, the concept of what he's talking about. Too often, we make race an issue where it really shouldn't have been an issue at all. In such situations, if we remove race from the equation, we may be better able to deal with the issue for what it is.

6. "Black history is American history."

If people were truly listening to what he is really saying, and want to agree with him or quote him as having some kind of insight into the value of Black History Month, they'd pause here and ask the question about Black history itself: do standard history textbooks and public policy reflect the reality of this statement?

We can apply this same question in whatever country Black people have been a part and, I can tell you without hesitation that, where I come from (Toronto), standard history curricula and public policy do not reflect this reality, at all. Granted, Mr. Freeman is, specifically, referring to American history, and Canada's history is not the same. 

However, one of the challenges about Black history in Canada is that it is far less known to average Canadians, and literature on the subject needs to be promoted so that more people can learn a "truer, fuller capturing of the history of people in the development of Canada."

One book I've got on my "must read list" is Colour-coded: A Legal History of Racism in Canada, 1900-1950, by Constance Backhouse. And, no, all conversation about Black people in Canadian history should not be about "racism". This is just one book to add to any exploration of the topic. But, it is sure to make an excellent contribution for demonstrating the systemic, deliberate machinations of marginalization that the legal landscape has enforced through the courts to disenfranchise Black people, driving a wedge between Black people and their legacy as part of Canada's heritage.

In summary

I appreciate Mr. Freeman correcting me. His saying "Black history is American history" suggests this post could be aptly renamed "Black History Month is for everyone," and discourse and dialog in how Black people are a part of Western and world history should be ongoing throughout the year as a part of any standard curricula.


Anonymous said...

There are soldiers right now fighting in Afghanistan. The Taliban aren't out to kill African-Americans, Caucasian-Americans, Asian-Americans, Latin-Americans, etc. They are perfectly happy with just killing Americans. If they don't differentiate, why should we?

DA said...

Thanks for your question. There are several implications with it, all worth considering. I might have been coy in responding "they differentiate Americans!" But I'd prefer to spend a little more time considering an angle you might appreciate - the "colourblind racism" issue.

Consider this statement: “We’re all the same.” Would that it were true!

Saying “we’re all the same, I don’t see your skin color, or gender, or age, or economic class, or…” is to dismiss some of the very characteristics that make us what we are; whether as individuals or as groups of people.

Would a Scottish person “be okay” with my saying “Scottish, English, meh – what’s the difference?”

Would a Chinese person be okay with my saying “Chinese, Japanese, meh – what’s the difference?”

(Czechs/Slovaks, Jamaican/Trinidadian, American/Canadian…)

Would a war vet with one leg, standing at the bottom of a long staircase be okay with my jumping into the last elevator spot while saying “hey, we’re all equal, you can take the stairs, buddy”?

I understand the intention of suggesting “I don’t see skin color.” Sure, it’d be ideal to believe that if two people are applying for a job, the most able person, skin color notwithstanding, would get the job. It would be wonderful to believe that the employer “did not see skin color.” I get that.

But taking that idea to an extreme is neither healthy nor constructive.

Not recognizing differences is not the answer – in this context, then, “colorblind racism” is very real.

Think about it - how do you see yourself? What makes you who you are? If we dismissed those very things, would you lose some of the very dignity of who you are?

In the Freeman Safer interview, notice how quickly Morley mentioned "I'm Jewish" rather than just going along with Freeman's "when is White History Month?" Why didn't Safer just go along with it? Because he differentiates himself, as do all of us in one way or another.

At the end of the day, it's not necessarily a matter of whether we "should" differentiate - in our society, we DO differentiate, starting with ourselves; then, we sometimes don't differentiate when we should, causing damage; and, at other times, we do differentiate when we shouldn't, causing damage; and, yes, there are times when we get it right, not differentiating when we shouldn't and differentiating when we should.

The issue is as complex as the tapestry of the human experience, and it requires engaged, thoughtful thinking about it - blankets and broad brush strokes may not always fit every circumstance.

Let me know if your question has been addressed fairly, thx.

Anonymous said...

I read your interpretation of Mr. Morgan's word. Its nice, but it deviates & takes away from what he was saying.

Its merely a interview, & his words should be taken literal, as there's no underlying message than what he said.

DA said...

Hey "Anonymous October 20,"

Thanks for your comment. I appreciate your thought and your conversation.

I wrote this article because I've heard, too frequently, people misquoting Mr. Freeman, taking his words to suggest that Black History Month is not necessary, or is of no value, or other conclusions that are not, at all, what I understood he was actually saying, hence my writing.

This article continues to get more hits than any other post on my blog. Year round, people search to find out "hey, what was that Morgan Freeman quote about Black History Month?" and land here.

And, the conversation is brought back to the fore each February.

Most of the time, people are looking for the quote in order to say "see, even a Black guy says he doesn't want Black History Month, let's get rid of it." I am utterly confident this is absolutely not what Mr. Freeman intended.

I ask you - when Mr. Freeman says "Black History is American history", what does that mean to you? Does your local education system teach Black History on par, as equal, to WW2 or whatever other history content it teaches?

If, in fact, Mr. Freeman's words stand on their own, I'd like to see more people referring to his words IN SUPPORT of Black History, because that's what he was saying, and I don't see how it's reasonable or genuine to conclude otherwise.

obat aborsi surabaya said...

I ask you - when Mr. Freeman says "Black History is American history", what does that mean to you? Does your local education system teach Black History on par, as equal, to WW2 or whatever other history content it teaches?

DA said...

Thanks for your question, obat.

Black history should not be taught apart from, distinct, from, separate from the "regular curriculum". Doing so marginalizes the experiences of African slaves and their descendants as distinct from "the real (white) Americans." If it was taught as a part of the regular curriculum, we wouldn't need/have a Black History month.

Stories about America's past that do not include the experiences of African slaves and their descendants are not complete, not honest, not real. What's the true value of a history that is incomplete, dishonest and unreal?

That Black history is relegated, suppressed, not faced openly, continues to reaffirm that wrongs were knowingly committed. Shame about the past is confirmation that there was indeed something to be ashamed about. It also continues to maintain a segregation, as if not even our histories can commingle as one.

Jenny Homan said...