This is the first post in Patrice Bowman’s new WKND BLOG series “Blogging While Black,” which will feature Patrice’s reflections—from the wry to the optimistic—on the experience of being Black at Yale.
I entered the Ezra Stiles dining hall and saw, to my lower left, a flyer advertising the annual “Black History Month Dinner.” The paper was complete with a silhouetted figure (no attempt to display a famous Black person during Black History Month!) and a menu that included peach cobbler, corn bread, fried fresh okra and grits. Black food for Black people. Sure, if by “Black food” you mean “food exclusively from African-Americans from the Southern region of the United States.” Sorry, non-African-American Black folks! But Yale Dining did omit fried chicken, watermelon and purple Kool-Aid from the menu. So, yeah, thanks, I guess.
My internal wisecracks slowed when the dinner finally glistened on my plate: the southern greens and barbecued pulled pork were a goopy, pale joke. But I’ll ease off of the entrees, because the food itself wasn’t the real problem. The thought behind the whole event was.
(As for the food, well: as much as stereotypes have given African-American food a bad rap, I couldn’t write off grits and cornbread as just “stereotypical.” Much of my family was born in Louisiana. To them, these foods were positive reminders of their heritage and of irreplaceable hours with friends and family. The exchanging of cultural foods between African-Americans just seems more authentic than what I had in front of me. And Yale Dining was trying its best (or second/third/whatever-best) to replicate some of the food that some of us students grew up with, so I shouldn’t have expected their grayish “sweet” potato pies to approach the savory texture and taste of my grandmother’s.)
What really troubled me was the concept of the dinner. It not only excluded non-African-American Blacks but was also a shallow way to celebrate such a significant month. If I wanted a Black dinner to be substantial and not just a token gesture, I guess I would have to go to an event organized by a Black student organization. Surprise, surprise.
Last Friday, as two of my friends and I headed to the Black Men’s Union’s Tribute to Black Women at the Omni Hotel, we tried our best not to be late. But you know what they say about people like me and punctuality…and by people like me, in case you were wondering/jumping to conclusions, I meant college students. Anyway, the event was a pretty good answer to the Black History Month Dinner problem, but an answer with its own issues. The best that I can say about the tribute is that it acknowledged Black achievement at the local level—among Yalies and New Haven residents—and at the contemporary level. It’s always important to see people like you and close to your standing working hard to make changes on a small scale. During Black History Month, it’s so easy to drum out the accomplishments of the looming figures of the past. Well, we won’t all be presidents or famous speakers or big-shot athletes. Some of us will volunteer to read to children or study law. Maybe that won’t make us famous, but it’ll positively impact someone’s life.
Let me stop myself before I start sounding like some inspirational life coach. What I didn’t like about the tribute was the frame through which the ceremony celebrated Black female accomplishments. To an extent, Black women became defined by how they supported and assisted Black men. “…No man could be where he is without a woman..” read one of the earlier emails announcing the event. That kind of line can bait either sneering laughter or just sneering sneering. Or both.
But I kind of get it. The stereotype that Black men disrespect Black women is a heavy one that weighs on all of our minds to some extent, like the gold chain on the neck of one of those grimacing rappers (see what I did there?). That’s why each of the women emerged as such brief sketches after I read through their tiny descriptions and watched videos of their friends heap praises on them: these aren’t meant to be their whole identities, but, instead, a reflection of Black male efforts to correct a demeaning stereotype. So yes, it’s nice that the BMU recognized a group that’s largely underrepresented in our culture, but wouldn’t it have made sense to present Black female achievement as existing for the benefit of women as well as men? Hint: yes.
Both Yale Dining’s Black History Month Dinner and the BMU’s Tribute to Black Women made me, more than ever, sensitive to how Blackness is regarded on our campus. For the people running Yale Dining, it’s a footnote in the larger course of the year. For the BMU, it’s a genuine—if slightly misguided —attempt to combat a perception built up over centuries. We all celebrate Black achievements in our own, imperfect ways. But the big month only comes once a year and our University, with all of its concerns about diversity, can do better.