We're Simply Americans: Morgan Freeman and I Want to Lose the Labels
Our government has long imposed observance upon us of religious holidays that only reflect the beliefs of a particular segment of a widely diverse population, and February's Black History Month is a similarly discriminatory, oppressively racially motivated event. While the celebration of certain American Presidents' and civil rights activists' birthdays and/or deeds can be reasoned as appropriate, calling anyone in the U.S. "black" or "white" anymore is probably harmful and disrespectful. Unfortunately, society has programmed us in such a way that its nearly impossible to have this discussion without using those words. Americans, along with most of the rest of the world, are just too socially juvenile to overlook race and color. Biologically speaking, the genetic differences that constitute what people identify as racial characteristics are much smaller than the genetic differences between individuals. Reasoning by that, every person is either his/her own individual race, or a member of an entire human race. As Bob Marley sang, we humans are "One Blood".
Black History Month was created in 1926 by Carter Godwin Woodson, originally as Negro History Week, to be observed in the second week of February. February was picked to honor the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. Woodson, the son of a slave, was born in New Canton, Virginia on December 19, 1875. He started high school at the age of 20 and then proceeded to study at Berea College, the University of Chicago, the Sorbonne, and Harvard University, where he earned a Ph.D. in 1912. He founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History in 1915, Journal of Negro History in 1916, Associated Publishers in 1922, and the Negro Bulletin in 1937. Woodson died on April 3, 1950. In 1976, during the bicentennial celebration of our country, Negro History Week was expanded into Black History Month, sometimes referred to as African American Heritage Month. The U.S. has also established March as Women's History Month, May as Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, Sep 15 - Oct 15 as Hispanic Heritage Month, October as Disability Employment Awareness Month, and November as American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month. Is this fair? Does this mean "my people" can have June? What about "my people," anyway? I'm probably not going to see any success with creating "Welsh-Scotch-Irish-Anglo American History Month," and certainly not "White History Month." Also, what about Italian Americans or German American history? What about Americans of Middle Eastern descent and everyone else in this gargantuan country of ours? Why isn't there a "United Honky College Fund?" I realize that Carter Woodson was trying to do something good for "his people;" who, at the time, were viewed as a separate part of American society. But haven't we evolved past such a segregated view? If not, isn't about time we do? If this weren't an issue, I wouldn't even have to lower myself to calling people "black" or "white" for the sake of explaining my argument!
In December of 2005, Oscar-winning actor Morgan Freeman, 68, called the Black History Month concept "ridiculous". During an interview on a taping of 60 Minutes, he reminded everyone that there is no "white history month" and said that he believes the only way to get rid of racism is to "stop talking about it."
"You're going to relegate my history to a month? I don't want a black history month. Black history is American history." The actor claimed the labels "black" and "white" as obstacles to overcoming racism. "I am going to stop calling you a white man and I'm going to ask you to stop calling me a black man."
Bravo... When I saw the clip, I was completely ecstatic. I felt Freeman was being fair, lucid, and logical. It was beautiful to see him up there reminding us that, if we are ever to be equally viewed in our society, we have to refer to each other as simply Americans. This is why I don't like the term "African American" any more than I would refer to myself as "European American." I wasn't born in Europe, and Mr. Freeman was born in Memphis, Tennessee, not Africa. This goes for anyone-- if you were born in the United States, you are an American, and no special label need be applied to you. Also, it's time to drop the "400 years of bondage speech" that pops back up constantly at NAACP meetings (that's National Association for the Advancement of Colored people-- an obviously racist name for a discriminatory group that apparently doesn't actually wish to be referred to as "colored"). It's been well over a hundred years since anyone actually owned a slave in this country. My family never did. It's also been about as long since a black man was forced to pick any damned cotton. Some of the other lessons being taught are quite negative... Many of the so-called "race baiting" black leaders (i.e. Rev. Al Sharpton, Louis Farrakhan, Bob Johnson) sometimes appear to be attempting to teach every new generation of black kids to hate white people for past injustices. The old stereotypes are often reinforced, and black youths who are good students or speak English competently are sometimes derided as "acting white" and Uncle Toms. Both white and black separatists in past years have shouted "go back to Africa." Comedian Eddie Griffin said, "How the hell am I supposed to go BACK to somewhere I have never been in the first place?" To me, moving forward means remembering the past but not repeating it or continuing to fight over it. We have to stop seeing colors and just see individuals and their actions.
Mr. Freeman makes a marvelous point about American history. Rather than making it a one-month-a-year consideration or a small segment of the coursework, students should be adequately educated about the achievements of people of all ethnicities in the U.S. Black men and women have contributed a lot of revolutionary inventions: the traffic light, the mail box, peanut butter, gas mask, fountain pen, typewriter, telegraph, golf tee, automatic gear shift, modern toilet, the method of dry cleaning clothes, the electric lamp, the automatic car coupler (and air brake) for trains, and many others. Yet only four black inventors have been inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in Akron, Ohio. Almost all of modern American popular music owes its inspiration and format to "black" origins. Dr. Vivien Thomas helped pioneer heart surgery with Dr. Alfred Blalock, but it took until years after the event for Thomas to get any recognition. These are just a couple bits of American history I was never taught at Wynford High School, just outside of Bucyrus, Ohio... I remember two or three black students attending there with me, although there were none in my graduating class. We learned about Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, but few of the other outstanding black Americans seemed important enough to our "educators." This seems to me like a major part of the problem. People should be learning more about Malcolm X or Booker T. Washington in the context of their lives and times, rather than just the month of February.
I was also floored when Freeman came close to echoing a few statements I made in my earlier article called "Where is the Grey Area?". You can read its entirety in our archives, of course, but the pertinent parts were:
'Race is a sense of origin, both biological and geographical, and that's all it can be in an egalitarian society. "Affirmative action" is an outdated concept. The playing field has to be releveled back to equal, because making any racial distinction only supports and plants racist attitudes. People of any sexual orientation, race, or religious group should not have any extra edge or disadvantage. It seems no one's terribly concerned with meeting any "Helping Poor-Ass White Person" quotas-- especially not in the mostly white, poverty stricken, drug addled, semi-literate corner of the U.S. I'm from. There's no longer any good reason in this country for the Latin Grammys, the Source/BET Awards, Miss Black USA, etc. One Grammys and one Miss USA contest ought to be enough... Again, these segregated contests/awards/scholarships/tax breaks only further and foster attitudes of racial separatism. Also, you probably wouldn't want to see the White Grammys or the Boy-Am-I-White awards. You should be awarded for your skill and performance, not your color or where you came from. You can choose what type of music to play, but not who you are. Whites, blacks, hispanics, and others can all win awards in Country Music, if that's what they want to play. Besides, whites have won awards for rap and blacks have won awards for rock, so why continue trying to keep everyone separate? Both sides of the current partisan political system are exploiting these issues to their own gain, as well... Racial tension dampers unity in the masses, which is something Big Brother is very concerned about. Oh, it's O.K. to put the ribbons on your car and feel some sense of togetherness during a ready-to-wear, designer war... But they have to stir the unrest among America at large, because if we are divided, we cannot overthrow them or change the face of American government. If we are busy enough fighting each other, America won't have the energy or focus to take power away from the tyrannically wealthy.'
Rereading that now, I wish I could revise some of it, as I dislike how limited some of my wording may have been. The point is the same, however. By looking at us as members of a race rather than equal citizens, we are being prejudged before we can display our talents. By giving special consideration to different racial/religious/ethnic groups we are fostering enmity and jealousy in those who are not part of the favored group.
This causes problems in the workplace as well. At my job, there is a man who doesn't do his work correctly, doesn't show up on time, and doesn't speak to coworkers with decency and respect. There is a complaint file on him in the office an inch thick. But my boss is so afraid of being accused of racial discrimination that she will not fire him. I'm amazed that the fear of such a lawsuit will override the justifiable decision to dismiss a substandard employee. It's just bad business. I once complained that he is lazy and has no manners, and another coworker had the gall to ask me, "Are you saying that because he's black?"
I responded with, "Are you insane? No! He's just terrible at his job and rude. If you acted that way, I'd want to see you go, too." In my time with my company, several white people have been fired for similar behavior. Unfortunately, he is the only black man working with us, and the lack of diversity in my workplace and the entire area I live in is difficult to cope with. I lived for several years in an area of southern California where I worked and played with people of nearly all ethnic and religious backgrounds. It was liberating to be accepted for my performance and my mentality, and I'm terribly bored with those around me now. I miss the influence of so many different and open-minded people, and I'm afraid I shouldn't raise children where I live now. I don't want them to learn from the dominance of homogenous, ignorant, and intolerant people in this area.
I was told that, some time ago, Mr. Freeman was somewhat offended by the media referring to him as an "articulate" and "refined" black actor. Although I would love it if someone actually noticed that I am articulate and/or refined, he seemed to interpret the remarks as expressions of incredulity and surprise that a black man could perform as such. I don't remember the exact wording, but he responded with something like "Calling a black man articulate and refined, what does that mean? I speak decent English and don't scratch myself in public?".
This reminds me of Chris Rock's anger over comments made about Colin Powell. "'He speaks so well.' What the hell is that supposed to mean?!? He's an educated man-- how do you expect him talk? 'Yo, I'mma drop me a bomb tuhday!'?"
American society has been slandering and demonizing non-caucasians since its beginnings. There are criminals and undesirables of all races throughout the world. This is not a problem that black people have a monopoly on. I have been living in southern Ohio for some time now, and I regret to report that there are plenty of white people here whose command of the English language is terrible, sometimes offensively ignorant, and even frightening. I still can't figure out why my own father, a college-educated man, chooses to replace the words "threw" and "thrown" with something that sounds like "thode." The sad fact is that many Americans cannot conjugate verbs properly, use adverbs properly-- hell, our own President George W. Bush still has not learned how to properly enunciate the word "nuclear." (That's not nook-yoo-ler, Sir!) No one is perfect, of course, but a child with a decent grasp of phonetics could do better. Is it any wonder the rest of the world laughs at us? We're so busy concerning ourselves with irrelevant issues of race and religion that we seem to be unable to learn our own language-- never mind that a large number of European and Asian teens can speak more than one language effectively and have a better grasp of science and mathematics than most of our adults. Americans seem to have an underfed, yet overdeveloped sense of national pride and delusions of superiority.
Not only are our government and media encouraging us to be divided, but Americans are segregating themselves by applying labels and overemphasizing ethnic difference. It is as if we're living in the stereotypical prison yard in many classic movie scenes-- y'know, where the Italians, skin-heads, blacks, latinos, etc, all stick to their respective groups. By behaving this way and allowing ourselves to be portrayed this way, we are putting ourselves in an American Ethnic Prison, locked away from each other and even our true selves. The establishment encourages this, evidenced by questions of race on student loan forms and other financial paperwork. Divided, we are falling, and this is exactly what our aristocracy wants. We are either all Americans, or this country has completely failed. The very notion of various types of Americans spits right in the face of our "founding fathers" and the goals they outlined for our nation.
Do you wish "unconstitutional" and "illegal" were still synonymous? You can write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org for a free copy of the United States Constitution. You can also tell me there what kind of American you think I am.
Copyright 2006, Jonathan Downard
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