I would be remiss if I did not take some time to wish everyone a happy Presidents’ Day, especially in light of Barack Obama’s presidency. We honor his hard work, his accomplishments, and courageous dedication in helping make this country a better place. While not enough to erase the deeply entrenched racial dynamics our country currently faces, the impact of his presidency will have a tremendous impact on future generations.
To borrow the metaphor from the great Ralph Ellsion, his presidency made visible what wasn’t previously. While not exactly analogous, in 1966, Nichelle Nichols initially wanted to leave the role of Lieutenant Uhura in the Star Trek television series. Martin Luther King urged her to continue in the role, understanding how powerful she would be to the millions of people that would watch her on television every week, knowing that her “first” would create possibilities that had never existed before into real realities.
It is the topic of “visibility” that I would like to ponder a bit further, as we continue to celebrate African-American history month. In a cruel twist of irony, as visible as African-Americans are in terms of policing, discrimination, and social statistics, their historical, social and cultural contributions continue to remain invisible: the Blues, jazz, rice, peanuts, kidney beans, lima beans, carbon bulb filaments, traffic lights, street mailboxes, touch tone phones, refrigerated trucks, open heart surgery, 350 years of forced free labor – the list goes on and on. They remain invisible in terms of attribution, in terms of acknowledgement, and in terms of respect. It is precisely because of this invisibility that celebrating African-American history month needs to continue, as we attempt to honor African Americans and their contributions – rendering the invisible visible.
However, we need to engage a level of openness and honesty if we are truly to render those invisibilities visible. In one way, celebrating African-American history month actually functions to reinforce and normalize the invisibility, or the visible invisibleness that this particular community has and continues to endure. Many educational and non-educational institutions simply ignore African American history month; and for those that do participate, many non- African Americans pay lip service to their participation, as they want to create an air of visibility to their superficial celebration. If we truly want to render the invisible visible, if we truly want to escape these racialized binaries in which we find ourselves trapped, we need to ask ourselves a question – modifying something that James Baldwin posed over 50 years ago: “Why it is necessary to have African American history in the first place?” Perhaps it’s because it sustains the visibility of some, while maintaining the invisibility of others.
-Tim Sakelos, Humanities Chair