Content warning and a note: I am going to talk about race and US/American identity in this post. I will not talk about or show images reflecting the systematic oppression or violence against people of colour, but if you find themes around racism uncomfortable right now, this is not the post for you. Also, I’m largely ignoring other cultural and racial historical influences in this post to focus on Black histories, but of course folks from Eastern/ Middle Eastern/ Pacific Island/ Latinx cultures and regions and Indigenous people all also shaped the culture of the USA that we love so much.
I spent a good chunk of my life (~8 years) living in the United Kingdom. Rest assured, this post is not a humble brag and this exposition has a payoff. Eventually. Anyway, during that time I met a lot of amazing people who, upon first meeting me, would notice my accent and hopefully ask, “Canadian?” After disappointing them that I’m in fact from the USA, they would give me a consolation-prize comment of, ” Oh! American! Fun. I love [insert media/food/ sciencey thing here]” as a conversation starter. And as an aside, I am no way making fun of the folks who were kind enough to chat me up. I think that’s a perfectly reasonable icebreaker and not at all the point of this story. The point of the story is that I quickly realised that 99% of what British/European people would say they loved about America wasn’t White America. It was either created by, influenced by, or heavily participated in by Black America.
Now, history has been whitewashed to hell and back, but let’s take some common examples of things I would hear and trace their origins.
“Oh! American! Fun. I love BBQ!”
BBQ cuisine (as we would know it today- although roasting meat over wood chips has been a style of cooking for a very long time) is a fusion born in the West Indies. As history tells it, a group of West African slaves marooned from a sinking Spaniard slave ship mixed cooking styles and spices with the Indigenous island people to create ‘jerking’ and the ancestor of the saucy BBQ we know and love today. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/jul/04/barbecue-american-tradition-enslaved-africans-native-americans
“Oh! American! Fun. I love NASA!”
Before you accuse me of lying, remember that I run in some pretty nerdy circles and so, yes, this phrase WAS actually uttered.
As the film Hidden Figures chronicled, Katherine Johnson was a mathematician and Black woman who’s orbital mechanics calculations enabled the first American space flight and Apollo 11. If we didn’t have her, we wouldn’t have the moon. (That’s right, our flag is up there. We own it.) Not only was she a brilliant mathematician that enabled the USA to win the space race, she also did all of this while being a mum and a teacher. Amazing. https://www.nasa.gov/content/katherine-johnson-biography
“Oh! American! Fun. I love rock and roll!”
Okay, I am 99% certain no one has ever actually said “I love rock and roll” other than in that one song, but the point is, the USA is known for killer rock music. I would hope that it is common knowledge now that rock and roll was birthed from a blending of African and European musical traditions in the Southern USA. (Let’s not forget that jazz, swing, rhythm and blues were all classed as “race music” and only played on special radio stations in the 1940s and 50s but anyway, I digress…) Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a Black gospel singer, is credited as being the Godmother of rock and roll because of her uniquely ‘spirited’ method of playing guitar. Some have attributed the term ‘rock and roll’ to her because of her 1938 hit ‘Rock Me’, but of course that is contested. https://www.npr.org/2017/08/24/544226085/forebears-sister-rosetta-tharpe-the-godmother-of-rock-n-roll
And last but not least…
“Oh! American! Fun. I love videogames!”
Of course the history of games extends to countries outside of the USA (Japan and Great Britain come to mind) but Black engineers and designers had a heavy hand in making videogames popular in the USA. Gerald “Jerry” Lawson was team lead on the design of the 1976 Fairchild Channel F console. This was the first console that allowed you to remove game cartridges (instead of needing to buy a new console every time you wanted a new game). Mr. Lawson would go on to found Video Soft, a company which pioneered the first ever 3D videogames by using 3D glasses. So yeah, the next time you pop CoD in the PS4 remember, the idea of being able to change games and not consoles came from a Black man. https://www.museumofplay.org/blog/2018/02/video-game-history-is-black-history
I know, I know. By now you’re probably thinking, “the hell does this have to do with police brutality and the Black lives lost because of an unjust justice system?” That is a fair question.
I want to be very careful here. My takeaway point from this post should NOT be, “Black Lives Matter is a good movement because Black people have done a lot of nice stuff for White America.” Black Lives Matter is a good movement because it is helping hold the American justice system accountable for the loss of human life due to racism and the systematic abuse of power. The point of this post is to recognize that the culture of the United States of America, the culture we associate with folks from White European ancestry, is actually not so White.
My time in England afforded me the opportunity to see the USA through the eyes of someone not born here. It helped me realise that the parts of the United States of America I love so much come from or are deeply intertwined with Black African and Black Caribbean histories, traditions, and culture. If I want to be blunt, Black America is what makes America great in my book. I, personally, owe so much of my happiness and what makes me excited to get out of bed every morning to Black America.
And again, I am no way trying to argue that it is because of my own selfish interest in BBQ or rock and roll that Black lives matter. Rather I am trying to say that the apathy I see from some corners of White America right now is particularly heartbreaking because of this whitewashing of American history. I am sure many a racist enjoyed some electric guitar music and BBQ this past Memorial Day whilst being completely unaware those gifts came from Black cultures and traditions. This unawareness is about more than just giving credit where credit is due, it is about the ability to cognitively disassociate yourself from someone else’s plight because of the perception that it does not effect you. Hopefully this post has, perhaps hamfistedly, made the argument that the loss of Black lives does effect you regardless of your skin colour or cultural background. It effects the entire United States as a country (and also the world, but hey… let’s scope this post down a little, huh?)
Not only is the loss of any life a time for mourning, this goes much deeper. This is about the intentional loss and oppression of a side of history that has made the United States the kick-ass-we-landed-on-the-moon-first country it is today. To try to argue that Black lives don’t matter or that -ugh- “all lives matter” is to stomp down our own history as a country and replace it with fascist, whitewashed nonsense. To ignore this history is to actively partake in the othering of Black culture as outside of or different to American culture. This allows for, among other things, Black folks to be painted as thugs and criminals deserving of violence instead of acknowledging Black lives as being human lives spanning all the weird and wonderful things that make humans cool. Like science, music, videogames and really, really good food.
Knowing my reader base, I am sure I am preaching to the choir here, but please don’t let that happen. Don’t let history be rewritten to exclude Black lives as an integral part of what makes America great. Black lives matter so much.
Until next time,