When I began as a young academic I worked day and night to get the rewards of “the system.” I wanted my work to be published in the “best” journals and with the “best” publishers. As this began to happen I wanted my work and efforts to be acknowledged by the receipt of certain honors and awards. And, to be honest I have received my fair share of those. However, I noticed that some of my White colleagues who, in my opinion, had not worked nearly as long and hard or produced work that had equal impact as mine were receiving honors and accolades. At one point I was grumbling about this seeming inequity and my (now deceased) father casually remarked, “You need to quit expecting White folks to give you anything!” At first I was taken aback by his statement. “But…but, I’m not,” I countered. “Yes you are,” he said. “Some White people are giving some other White people some prizes and you got your mouth all twisted up. Just do YOUR work and stop waiting for White people to give you something! It’s not going to happen…and if they do give you something it doesn’t mean nothin’ if you ain’t servin’ your own people!”
That moment with my dad reminded me of an experience I had in 11th grade. For my honors US History class I decided to do an term paper that examined the “European slave trade in African and the Americas.” I had a wonderful mentor in my church’s youth minister who had a degree in US History with a specialty in Black History. He urged me to go up to New York to the Schomburg Collection so I could access some amazing resources. On one Saturday morning I hopped on the train from Philadelphia to New York, rode the subway up to Harlem and spent the entire day sifting through a treasure trove of Black history resources. I wrote, what I considered to be, a fabulous paper that I typed and proudly turned in on the requisite due date. When my teacher (who was a White man) returned the papers, my paper was nowhere to be found. I asked about it and he snapped, “I’ve misplaced it!” When I asked if he at least had read it he said, “Yes, I gave it a ‘B’!” I was distraught—I knew that paper deserved an A. When I shared that sentiment with my mom she said, “If you know you did excellent work then don’t worry about what he thinks!” I think this experience fueled my passion for Black History and kept me teaching it throughout my career.
This brings me to what inspired today’s blog. We are now in “Awards season.” The Golden Globes, the Grammy’s, and the Academy Awards are being given and we are speculating about the winners. Already with the Golden Globes and the Grammys we have seen some disappointing results. Ava DuVernay’s moving film, “Selma” is taking a back seat to films like “American Sniper” and “Boyhood.” Singers like Beyoncé are being bypassed by Sam Smith, the new UK singing “sensation.” Last year it was Macklemore instead of Kendrick Lamar. In the case of the Academy Award nominations “Selma” received no acting or directing awards although, curiously it was nominated for “best picture” (and best song).
As the results started pouring in I was reminded that we cannot continue to expect a mainstream White audience to appreciate our art in the same ways we do. The photo of the Academy Award nominees was the whitest it’s been in 10 years (with Oprah and Common standing out like 2 little ink spots). And, no one in Hollywood is making any apologies for these slights and omissions. But, I believe that we have to move past waiting for the affirmation and validation of White America. We have to stop waiting for White people to give us anything!
Stay Black & Smart!