February is Black History Month, an eventful time of the year if you are part of the community or associated with it. Look it up on the Internet and you will find tons of information: Newspapers reporting events across the country, stores offering discounts, and bloggers and social media influencers trying to capture the African-American experience, instil a sense of shared history, and raise awareness on the issues facing the people of color in contemporary United States.
I am pleasantly surprised by the individuals and institutions who are investing their time and money to make communities across America more humane. To tell the truth, a lot of that is noise and difficult to bear; an unfortunate side-effect of our times when everyone is a filmmaker or a writer. Nonetheless, some of what is being written is worth attention. Authors are working diligently to tell the story of their communities and open new avenues for dialogue. We ought to listen to them.
Listening Decreases Enmity
It is easy to make enemies of people we do not know much about . The less we know the more we use our own mind to fill in the blanks. Balderdash? No.
Nautilus recently published an article on the importance of dialogue in which each participant can have their say. Despite being full of references to psychological and social research, it is a pleasant read.
Listening Breaks Barriers
Facts are persuasive, but stories are not that far behind. Few stories, in my experience, emphasise the importance of listening to the other than Chinua Achebe’s. He is absolutely correct when he says, “Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” Reading some of this works helps us understand how the other side of the story.
Listening Eliminates the Mysterious Other
Like Chinua Achebe, Chimamanda Adichie is a Nigerian writer. In 2009 she gave a fabulous talk titled The Danger of a Single Story. Here is an excerpt from the talk:
“The year I turned eight, we got a new house boy. His name was Fide. The only thing my mother told us about him was that his family was very poor. My mother sent yams and rice, and our old clothes, to his family. And when I didn’t finish my dinner, my mother would say, “Finish your food! Don’t you know? People like Fide’s family have nothing.” So I felt enormous pity for Fide’s family.
Then one Saturday, we went to his village to visit, and his mother showed us a beautifully patterned basket made of dyed raffia that his brother had made. I was startled. It had not occurred to me that anybody in his family could actually make something. All I had heard about them was how poor they were, so that it had become impossible for me to see them as anything else but poor. Their poverty was my single story of them.”
The situation in America, although improving, is not that different. Black remain poor, criminal, and untrustworthy in popular imagination because we have not heard from them.
Fortunately, Black History Month is a reminder of how far we need to go. This month, we can promise ourselves to listen to the people of the African-American community. I am confident that it will help us realize all blacks are neither angels like Martin Luther nor thugs; they are people like everyone else.