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Reading Black Beauty, Excellence, and Joy

By Marcelle M. Haddix
 | Nov 09, 2020

ReadingBlackBeautyExcellenceAndJoy_680The year is 1984. June 19. My family lived on 3rd Street, also known as Martin Luther King Jr. Drive (or simply King Drive), in the inner city of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. This was no ordinary day—this was Juneteenth Day. And, as long as I can remember, Milwaukee has been home to one of the largest Juneteenth Day celebrations in the United States.

Beginning in 1971, the Juneteenth Day celebration is the longest continuously running cultural festival in Milwaukee. It honors the day in June 1865 when the Union Army brought word of the Emancipation Proclamation to Texas, freeing the last of the country’s enslaved people. Each year, thousands of mostly Black Americans would emerge on King Drive to watch the parade, eat barbecued smoked pulled meats and roasted corn, dance with local musicians and artists, and shop with Black vendors. Juneteenth Day was a holiday—Black people’s Independence Day. On that morning in 1984, beaming with excitement and anticipation, I was a 10-year-old Black girl stepping out of my home into a sea of Black beauty, excellence, and joy. 

ReadingBlackBeautyExcellenceAndJoy_PQ1Fast forward to the year 2020. June 19. Even in a time of a global pandemic, our country’s allegiance to its deep history of enslaving and killing Black, Brown, and Indigenous people resurges. Racial violence never left. Millions around the world are protesting for systemic and material changes that underscore the belief that Black Lives Matter.

Ahmaud Arbery. Breonna Taylor. Tony McDade. George Floyd.

The murders of innocent Black people are on full display for a society on pause because of COVID-19. Sadly, this anti-Black violence and racism is not new to me or new within communities of color. But this moment in 2020 feels different—at least, I want to hope that this time is different and that the outpouring of anger against racial violence does not simply fade away.

All of a sudden, there are countless virtual offerings—webinars and panel discussions—on how to be anti-racist. Businesses, organizations, and universities release statements pledging anti-racist values and solidarity with Black Lives Matter movements. Now, “taking a knee” as an individual protest against police brutality and anti-Black violence is honorable. Juneteenth Day, a day that conjures up my childhood memories of Black beauty, excellence, and joy, receives national attention. Political leaders call for our nation to formally observe June 19 as a day of reflection and service—with many businesses giving employees the day off to observe this holiday—my Independence Day.

Growing up in Milwaukee, one of the most racially segregated cities in the U.S., my life centered Blackness. Juneteenth Day celebrations where more than 100,000 Black people came together in the name of freedom and liberation is just one example of the lived experiences that informed my sense of self as a Black woman. Suddenly, with calls for national holidays to painting of murals and even the wearing of Kente cloth by public officials, these symbolic acts of allyship serve only to minimize the significance of this history for Black Americans and potentially turn attention away from the very real and necessary calls for change in the way this country deals with its racist past and present.

In 2020, we are living during a time of two pandemics: a major health and economic crisis and a racial crisis. Both pandemics call for a kind of reckoning: How do we respond to these crises? The pandemics offer a chance for new opportunities and new ways of being that reckon with the past while restoring the present and creating the future. How do we move beyond these temporary, and in some instances inauthentic, displays of allyship toward doing the work that will enact systemic change?

One example of efforts toward change is evidenced in the growing attention toward reading books on anti-racism and white fragility. For the first time in publishing history, books on the subject matter of anti-racism, White privilege, and White fragility dominate New York Times best-seller lists. Even within our literacy community, there is a surge in reading groups and book talks in direct response to racial violence. Books by Ibram X. Kendi and Robin DiAngelo are suddenly on everybody’s summer reading list. I was struck by the opinion essay in The Washington Post titled “When black people are in pain, white people just join book clubs” because although reading is certainly important for any process of consciousness raising and knowledge building, in this moment, it is not enough.

Further, the elevation of a book by a White author as number #1 when there are plentiful examples of texts by Black writers such as Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Jesmyn Ward, Colson Whitehead, Jason Reynolds, Nikole Hannah-Jones, and Ibram X. Kendi that deal squarely with anti-Black racism and White fragility seems counter at best to any calls for racial justice and equity. 

As a literacy scholar, I wholeheartedly advocate the significance of reading in any activist and justice movements. Literacy and the act of reading the world is critical in understanding history and, in particular, in disrupting normalized beliefs about race and racism in this country. But as I reflect on my own developed understandings of being a Black girl growing up in a segregated America, my mirror of this identity did not rest on stories of racial violence, oppression, and hatred—though certainly these narratives were a part of my literacy journey.ReadingBlackBeautyExcellenceAndJoy_PQ4 In fact, I yearned for the stories that celebrated Black beauty, excellence, and joy. In this moment, as we work together to reckon with the revelations afforded by the pandemics, let’s center the books and stories that acknowledge the humanity of Black people and respect the voices of Black truth tellers. To me, that is an important and necessary start toward freedom and liberation.

Marcelle M. Haddix is the department chair for the Reading and Language Arts Center at Syracuse University.

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