Where is 'I Am Not Your Negro'?

Opinion: Columns

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By Elizabeth Freeland

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Growing up, I was "not racist." I believed in equality and diversity. And yet, where were all the people of other races? Not at my church, my local swimming pool, my beach, not in my social circle. Eventually, I moved from Florida and lived in the North and then the Midwest. I thought when I moved to those locations, racism would be less, diversity more. Especially when I moved to "progressive Oak Park," I thought, "Problem solved." 

But no. As I raised a family here, preschool, mom's groups, swimming lessons, choir — all predominantly white kids. What was I doing wrong? In my professional work, I have long been involved with gender equity, and that work eventually led me to see what can be called the "universality of whiteness." That is, for people like me who grew up in a white culture, that white, European culture is assumed to be the universal norm. Everything else is "other." 

Most important for my purpose here, everything culturally or historically "other" is presumed, by people in power, to not be of interest to white people. All of my life I had wondered why people of color were not a part of my daily life, never understanding that the society and culture I grew up in and lived in was not "average American" but rather "white" and so, by definition, the lives of people of color would always be outside of mine. Unless I changed something. 

A clarifying and anger-provoking moment for me occurred just after David Bowie died. Appearing in my Facebook feed was an interview Bowie did with MTV VJ Mark Goodman in 1983: 

"There are so few black artists featured. Why is that?" Bowie asks. "The only few black artists that one does see are on about 2:30 in the morning to around 6." Goodman says MTV must consider all Americans, not just those in places like New York but also teens in areas like Poughkeepsie or the Midwest. Wait! Those kids in Poughkeepsie, they were me! 

They were deciding for me! They were continuing to define popular music as white popular music. I began to understand how I had been isolated and ignorant for so long. I also began to understand what I needed to do about it. 

Progress has been made, but I know that for so many of us who are white, the lives, culture, and history of people of color is still "other." Films like Moonlight and I Am Not Your Negro are, for us, black culture, black history. It cannot remain so. The history of I Am Not Your Negro is our American history.

If we in Oak Park want to truly embrace diversity, those of us who have the means must make spaces for the lives, culture, and history of people of color and push to create one truly inclusive history. As a community, we must ask for and support films like Moonlight and I Am Not Your Negro. My family and I made a special trip to Chicago to see I Am Not Your Negro. The words of author James Baldwin are as relevant today as they were when he first wrote them. 

I do not want my children to grow up in the same, narrow, culture that I did. I hope my community will begin to ask, "Where is I Am Not Your Negro? Where is our history?"

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