Robert Azzi: Black History Month – show them who you are

  • Maya Angelou, shown here on March 4, 2008, said: “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” AP

For the Monitor
Published: 2/10/2019 12:15:07 AM

‘I’m awfully tired of hearing about the awfulness of the KKK jingle,” a Dover resident wrote to a local newspaper. “If it had been done by some rapper we wouldn’t even hear about it. Indeed, if anyone found fault with the rapper they would probably be called racist! . . . I’m tired of the NAACP, too, if the truth be known. . . . I fail to see New Hampshire as a hotbed of racism and fostering unrest isn’t helpful to anyone.”

The letter was a response to a controversy – and its resolution – that erupted after a video recently emerged of Dover High School students who were recorded singing a jingle, to the tune of “Jingle Bells,” with lyrics that included, “KKK, KKK, let’s kill all the blacks.”

It’s Black History Month, and it’s getting harder to believe that the history of black America will ever be memorialized in anything other than blood, pain and disenfranchisement.

Last week, during Black History Month, on the same day that President Donald Trump delivered his State of the Union message, the NAACP reminded us: “TODAY: We remember Trayvon Martin who would have been 24 years old. Just know that you are forever in our hearts. And we will keep fighting for justice.”

It’s Black History Month and had America truly evolved as a socially just nation, such a month would probably not even need to be observed other than, perhaps, in the most celebratory of ways.

Instead – this month, every month – black Americans repeatedly find themselves disproportionately vulnerable to violence, mockery and assaults on their dignity and humanity.

While, in principle, I agree with actor Morgan Freeman – “I don’t want a black history month. Black history is American history” – the reality is that too many Americans, 400 years after slaves were first brought to Jamestown, still treat America’s minorities and communities of color as less worthy, and I believe we need a time to focus not just on achievement and beauty but on inequities, injustice and a path forward.

A focus upon Black History Month reminds us that struggle is timeless, without limit.

It’s time to stop pretending that incidents of racism in America are random. Sojourners’ Jim Wallis once wrote: “Many white Americans tend to see this problem as unfortunate incidents based on individual circumstances. Black Americans see a system in which their black lives matter less than white lives. That is a fundamental difference of experience between white and black Americans.”

Four hundred years after Jamestown, Kiah Morris, the only African American woman in the Vermont House of Representatives, resigned her House seat after what she described as ongoing racially motivated harassment and threats.

And today, proving that racism is an equal opportunity affliction, Virginia is being roiled by disclosures its Democratic governor and its attorney general have been exposed as having participated in acts of blackface – archetypal images depicting African characters in exaggerated and dehumanizing fashion – during their college days.

“When someone shows you who they are,” Maya Angelou told us, “believe them the first time.”

Even New Hampshire – the last American state to adopt MLK Day – has been roiled by racism, by allegations that in 2017 in Claremont several teenagers taunted a biracial boy with racial slurs and then pushed him off a picnic table with a rope around his neck, to the controversy over the KKK jingle.

“When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.”

This week Chicago Cubs owner Joe Ricketts, after admitting that he received, shared and endorsed racist jokes and conspiracy theories for years, responded by saying: “I deeply regret and apologize for some of the exchanges I had in my emails. Sometimes I received emails that I should have condemned. Other times I’ve said things that don’t reflect my value system. I strongly believe that bigoted ideas are wrong.”

I don’t believe him.

I’m tired of people saying that their actions don’t reflect what they believe, of people who say “I don’t have a racist bone in my body” or “this behavior doesn’t reflect who I am today.”

I’m tired that such white “woke” moments come at the expense of people of color.

Contrary to the self-serving mantra of many right-wing and supremacist politicians, pundits and talk-show hosts, racism is systemic in America and today is led by a president who – while not giving people orders to commit violence – is a racist who stimulates his base with inflammatory rhetoric and dog-whistles, who pits American against American, and who has inflamed incidents of racism, disenfranchisement, xenophobia, oppression and persecution directed against all Americans considered “Other.”

“When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.”

“The marginalized did not create identity politics,” Stacey Abrams argues in a Foreign Affairs article, “their identities have been forced on them by dominant groups, and politics is the most effective method of revolt.”

During Black History Month let us consider what it means for oppressed peoples to fight to sustain their identity, to exist, to co-exist and to resist; to understand that celebratory moments may be tempered by an understanding that Americans whose ancestors arrived as slaves have struggled for generations just to survive.

While we are comforted and inspired by remembrances of heroes like Sojourner Truth, MLK, Dorothy Vaughan, Jackie Robinson, Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Rosa Parks and others, and mentored by the works of activists like John Lewis, Angela Davis, Toni Morrison, Colin Kaepernick, LeBron James and Beyoncé, we must be diligent in keeping up the pressure for justice.

Unrest is good.

This month, show them who you are.

(Robert Azzi, a photographer and writer who lives in Exeter, can be reached at His columns are archived at

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