White History Month

Samuel Rocha, Wabash College Chapel Talk - February 24, 2011

No tengo madre ni padre, Ni mando a la escuela hijos, Hombre no soy, pero tengo… ¡Tengo nombre y apellido! ~ Juan Antonio Corretjer, Yierba Bruja Reclamo el derecho simple de ser lo que somos. ~ Manuel Zapata Olivella, Chambacú, Corral de Negros I have no mother or father, Nor do I send children to school, Man I am not, but I have… I have a first and last name. I reclaim the simple right to be who we are. ~ A mixed translation of the above I reject the popular and self-righteous paranoia that requires our speech to be politically correct; and I am equally dismissive of the reckless, self-indulgent, and often dangerous attitude that revels in being politically incorrect. My distaste for this unimaginative binary begins with the fact that I have no idea, no clue at all, what “political” adds to “correctness” (or “incorrectness”). What does “political” add to being “correct” or “incorrect”? Is there a difference between being “correct” and being “politically correct”? And why would anyone want to be incorrect in the first place? I don’t care for correctness much either. I want more than that. I don’t desire to merely be “correct.” I don’t want to settle for the sanity of correctness, nor the insanity of its converse. Give me Truth instead: the elusive, excessive, overwhelmingly beautiful Truth. Correctness abounds in this age of constant information and innovation, but Truth seems



but no music. you will have to disabuse yourself of these destructive mirror images and begin to imagine something bigger and better—something True. I don’t give a damn about the narrow assumption that our speech has to be either politically correct or politically incorrect. Like Walt Whitman. “Never has there been so much knowledge and so little Truth. really. If you want to understand me today.awfully scarce. even beyond my words.” There is noise. we all do. or experience. plain. live our lives poorly. I am required to exist as one thing or the other. As Tolstoy warns us (in The Death of Ivan Ilych) we settle within the ordinary and terrible fate of the living dead. and my point is this: the timid and mendicant ways in which race and ethnicity—and identity in general—are discussed today are not because we lack intelligence. To be painfully clear: this is not a conservative or a liberal chapel talk just as I am not a conservative or a liberal. With an impoverished imagination we settle for junk food instead of real food and malnutrition becomes the norm. Just think about it: Eating healthy today is considered to be exceptional. the pixilated image of Beyoncé has   2   . We settle for getting as rich as possible and. things become small and simplistic and demand ideological positions that are equally as small. In a way. insight. those terms do not begin to define or contain me. this opening clarification gets right to my point. “I contain multitudes”—and so do you. In other words. in the process. organic food is a specialty item at the grocery store. not the exception. Wendy’s is running a special ad to tell us that it makes “natural-cut fries” with ordinary potatoes. Lacking imagination. I’ve even heard it said. And I am offended by the idea that. It is because we lack imagination. I am more than that. and the person who refuses to settle often feels like “a loner in a world of clones” as The Roots’ recent album (How I Got Over) laments.

For Woodson. it is also about remembering old things. things from the past. which is impossible without a healthy imagination. and destructive than the lynching of the body. Woodson to initiate Negro History Week in 1926 during the second week of February (so as to coincide with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Friedrich Douglas). when it got into your head. In The Mis-Education of the Negro. was a way towards   3   . mindlynching. We all know that control over someone’s body is one thing. No wonder things so often feel counterfeit: the inauthentic is what is we are accustomed to. for Woodson. We can find new images and novel ways of thinking by recovering the archives of memory that live in the stories of history. so too with our imaginations. In this way. was most violent when it became psychological.S. sesquicentennial. Woodson notes that the lynching of the mind. dangerous. Carter G. curious. But this is an illusion and we are in need of dis-illusionment. Without a robust. and inventive imagination this absurd way of living appears normal and becomes acceptable. but control over their mind is something quite different. Fostering a healthy imagination is not only about making things up for the future. As our bodies need real food and vigorous exercise. we are all too familiar with eating fake food and watching disembodied images of clones like ourselves. the study of history is a rigorous exercise of the imagination. the recovery of collective memory. It is precisely this sense of history that motivated Carter G. during the U. the study of history. is more effective. Woodson knew very well that oppression was not primarily a matter of physical intimidation or legal compulsion—oppression. How can we nurse our personal and social imaginations into better health? This is what my talk is about. This initiative would lead to the institution of Black History Month in 1976.replaced her sensuous body and VIZIO is bragging about it in their television commercials.

The fact that many people who claim to celebrate Black History Month have little to no idea of its history and are unfamiliar with the thought of Woodson. again and again. It was a response to Malcolm X when he said. from the bondage of mental slavery. and. for Woodson and Malcolm X. forgotten identity. from the shackles of a hidden. they have no reply to the interrogations of Malcolm X. pondered. was not a matter of celebrating a holiday—it was a serious.” The institution of Black History Month. Malcolm X. Black History Month was more about existence than equality. lazy. was a lethal weapon in the fight for justice. as Bob Marley would later put it in his final composition (Redemption Song). not a cheap noisemaker in the party of politics. After Saturday’s basketball game I saw a fine example of this: Coach Petty gracefully refused to celebrate at his own celebration out of true love for his family. History was a call to. it was something to be studied. and urgent call to study history as a way to imagine oneself anew and free one’s mind. ultimately. empowered by with a restless sense of one’s place in the world. “Who are you? You don’t know.” He surely knows that too much celebration is as toxic for life as it is for sports. and others is itself proof of why celebrating history is a bad idea—too many people celebrating it don’t know what they are doing. with a sense of who one is and might be. “emancipate yourself from mental slavery. Everybody knows this: too much celebration makes you complacent.freedom of the mind. struggled with. was not something to be celebrated. History. sober. for Woodson. that’s nothing. team. What were you before the white man named you ‘Negro’? And where were you?” History. he was grateful.   4   . then. but he reminded Wabash that we still have “unfinished business. and unmotivated. Don’t tell me Negro. and the game of basketball.

celebrating history is at crosspurposes with what history is.” Yet. It’s about a trying to cash a bad check—anyone who has heard or read the speech knows this (and those who haven’t shouldn’t pretend to be so enamored with it). Make no mistake: Dr. is neither Santa Claus nor the Easter Bunny. the so-called “I Have a Dream” speech isn’t really about a dream. much like Santa Claus allows people to celebrate Christmas regardless of what they think about the Christian mystery of the Incarnation.” we actually disfigure the Truth of the life and legacy of Dr. by making him into a national celebrity.This example shows what G. however. generic caricature to make it easy for people to pretend like they care about King’s life and legacy or about the disenfranchised and the poor. he is not a soft. have a great deal of interest in the life and legacy of Dr. I am glad that we didn’t take Martin Luther King Day off from school.K. But by celebrating Martin Luther King Day as a “holiday. there shouldn’t be eternal mourning. For example. then there should be no eternal celebrations. we have made King invisible in all the ways celebrities are invisible: we no longer see him as anything other than “one of your Hollywood movie ectoplasms. In order to celebrate Martin Luther King Day. fuzzy. Because of this view I hold.”   5   . King. By celebrating history we de-historicize it. King. “The two sins against hope are presumption and despair. King is “not a spook like those haunted Edgar Allen Poe. Chesterton meant when he wrote. You see. just as since there are no eternal defeats. I do.—the man—has to be distorted into a Black Santa Claus: an iconic personality we no longer take seriously.” Since there are no eternal victories. Martin Luther King Jr. the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. I have no interest whatsoever in celebrating Martin Luther King Day. as Ralph Ellison puts it.

King would have rejected the idea that Obama’s election marks the beginning of a “post-racial” era. and. but it has not gone extinct in many other places. and the soul.Celebrations are numbing ointments that dull the Truth of history. especially in the mind. his life story? Here is my recommendation: We need to stop celebrating him as some kind of hero or celebrity and begin to study him as a real person.—“the man of flesh and bone. Slavery in the United States may be over in the generic legal sense. We need to read his writings and listen to his speeches. King’s bad check: Dr. we have yet to see a Black president from the genealogical line of Carter G. and more. So. And. King—a Black woman or man with ancestral ties to slavery and the civil rights movement has never been elected president in this country. In the case of Dr. and Dr. We must struggle to understand the context that shaped his worldview. how do we save Martin Luther King Jr. King. Malcolm X. the heart. hatred. And surely Dr. Woodson. fiber and liquids”—how do we preserve him from this frightfully invisible fate? Moreover. to those who confuse the election of Barack Obama with a partial repayment of Dr. popular impressions of him that our generation has been weaned on? How do we remain faithful to the Truth of his biography. transnational capitalism and more. King would have been more impressed had we elected a poor president than a Black one. slavery is alive and well. celebrating Martin Luther King Day desensitizes people to the fact that King’s check still goes unpaid and the bank of justice is still compromised by racial supremacy. how do we emancipate our minds from the soft. since we didn’t elect Cynthia McKinney or Alan Keyes.   6   .

then stop celebrating and start studying. If you really care about Black History. For all these reasons. but we do need to know when to play and when to study. don’t get me wrong: I like to celebrate. As Friedrich Nietzsche put it: “The man of knowledge must be able not only to love his enemies but also to hate his friends. and oftentimes dogmatic. I don’t simply want to talk today. “White History Month” is a way to apply and put into practice the implications of the view I have begun to set forth. then the same standard applies. or having fun. I also want to suggest things we might actually do. And precisely because I love to party I also know that no one really wants to celebrate history. and more. It is also a proposal. our celebrations become empty.” (By the way: if you care about Wabash History. I’ve never been to a raging “History Party. At this point you might be wondering: What happened to White History Month? Right? Okay. I doubt whether you cared about Black History in the first place. and leave us psychologically weak and unimaginative. “White History Month” is not just a provocative title. If you find that task too demanding. dangerous. If we abandon the celebration of Black History—and any history for that   7   . rituals that distort real lives and bodies into comfortable delusions that weaken our sense of the Truth. Anyone who knows me at all knows that I love to party. I am not discouraging playing.”—Have you? In many ways. history ruins a good celebration. we should stop celebrating history.The larger point is this: if we take history seriously. then. invert reality.) Now. Otherwise. just as celebrations de-historicize history. we should study it instead. partying. if you are friendly towards it. frankly. then we shouldn’t celebrate it.

like the relationship between shape and color. but in similar fashion. what we are actually looking at. Let me put it physiologically: the physical site where we find “color” is on the largest organ of the human body: the skin. None of the bodies   8   . The surface of the skin is called the epidermis. Higher education nowadays often spends a lot of effort promoting the racial and ethnic histories of people considered non-whites. But if we were actually doing this we would never use the word “white” to describe anyone because that color never exists in the epidermis at all. it took this so-called whiteness for granted and treated it as normative and natural. where we cannot ignore the temporal flesh of the body. In the past. This is strange for many reasons. we often think we are speaking descriptively about what we observe. In other words.” even in albinos who lack pigmentation altogether. When we refer to someone by color. First of all. One reason for this is because whiteness is often considered an absence of identity. and the epidermis is “colored” by melanin. including Wabash history—and begin to study it in earnest. Look around at these chapel paintings. there is a necessary connection between the center and the margin. To put it another way: A painter would never reach for the color “white” to paint anyone’s body. makes it just as normal and natural as before. when we see another person’s epidermis. there is no melanin pigmentation that remotely resembles the color “white. then we will soon find that Black History takes White History for granted. in doing so. to take it more (not less) seriously. but without a donut hole a donut is not a donut. unlike the study of masculinity. Eating a donut takes the donut hole for granted. when all history was primarily European. I often hear so-called white people say that they have no culture or that they are not ethnic or diverse. there is no such thing as a white body. it rarely asks questions about where so-called “white people” and White History came from—it leaves whiteness unquestioned and.matter.

of these so-called white men surrounding us today were painted with white paint while their bodies suggest masculinity. and many other people of European descent. What were you before the rich man. This time. That’s why so-called black people make a big deal about being light. Don’t tell me White. they say nothing about literal. The exact same can be said about black people. by the way.or dark-skinned and often refer to themselves as “chocolate” or “brown”—just visit “Chocolate City” or listen to the song Brown Sugar. For those with Irish ancestry. Since I’ve never seen a white. How many of you socalled white people are Catholic. How many of you have Italian. or the man you cannot even imagine. Greeks. As a descriptive. the historical record is clear: you were not always considered “white” in this country. that’s nothing. Poles. Polish. empirical matter: white people do not exist. please. pictorial whiteness. Scottish. Mormon. you were once Black in America. then the history of how these came to be named “black” or “white” will offer some reply to the question raised by Malcolm X. just as the so-called Negro before. it is a physiological fact. the question becomes a bigger issue for all people who identify themselves using language that they don’t understand and didn’t come up with—all of us. or German heritage? Stand up too. For the so-called white person. Albeit in a different and more complicated way. Germans. The same goes for Italians. there   9   . Scots. Jewish. the question would go as follows: “Who are you? You don’t know. Greek. or Atheist? Stand up too. and since this is more than just my experience.” In fact.or black-colored person in my entire life. in other words. named you ‘White’? And where were you?” How many of you are of some kind of Irish ancestry? Stand up. you somehow became “white.

I am also used to getting called a “coconut” for doing it—“brown on the outside and white on the inside. so “acting white” shouldn’t be a threat   10   . After all. when it suits me—after all. your ethnicity? Are you invisible?” As a Mexican and a Texican—and I don’t called myself a “Mexican-American” because that would be redundant.are also important historical overlaps here for Catholics. and more. the Whig. Latinos in the United States have tried to become white at different times and were legally classified—albeit not socially treated—that way until the Hernandez vs. Texas Supreme Court decision in 1954.” I admit it: I can be a coconut at times. it is the basis for the difference between a criollo and a mextizo. named you ‘White’?—and who were they before whoever named then that named them that?—Who invented you in this way? How did you move from the margin into the center? And when did you decide to have more in common with this rather than that person? When did you lose your culture. I also know that becoming “white” is for strategic and political purposes. Jews. Mormons. Latinos come in all stripes: European. indigenous. Don’t tell me White. on the last map I checked Mexico and Texas were both in North America. What were you before the rich man. and Atheists.) Consider the questions again: “Who are you? You don’t know. Anyone with darker tones of melanin in their epidermis who spends time with people of lighter tones of melanin in their epidermis knows how to “act white”—I sure do. (Thank you. Plus: Latinos make the light. as a Tejano and a Latino.and dark-skinned distinction too you know. you can sit down now. the move from this or that to white. African. after all. not existential ones. that’s nothing. just as the last time I checked English was a modern language—. the Theist. I am quite familiar with the historical transformation from margin to center in this country. the Protestant.

I often mourn for those who have been fooled into thinking of themselves as white. and I am unquestionably Mexicano when I sing a corrido. and on the margin of questions about alienation and existential pain. I even feel bad. This seemingly easy suggestion reminds me of a scene in The Great Debaters where the character. play a requinto. to their own racial and existential insecurity. and therefore flavorless. passionate grito. in the United States. whatever that is exactly—but I can also be a chocolate cake with light brown frosting when I play and sing the blues. and Klu Klux Klan members— they are mind-lynched too you know. not Latinos—no one has a monopoly over suffering and over the desire to intimately know who one is. some people who are frustrated with—or afraid of—the conflicts embedded in this thorny subject of race propose that we. needed to be expanded to account for the vast geography and variety of Latinos and the multiplicities of my self. for those who react to this in the opposite way: by becoming white supremacists. a Roman   11   .to being a genuine Latino. Their plurality does not threaten or enrich my identity. from time to time. refer to ourselves as “Americans” and be done with it. it is just who I am. Now. or let loose a long. As the prophetic Black tradition and the Rastafarian movement saw and read themselves into the plight of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt and Babylon. I read my own self into the lives of others and realized that no one— not so-called black or white people. about my own identity. culturally irrelevant. impotence. recalls Tacitus: “Once. Malcolm X’s questions apply to them too. I am all these things and more. To be more transparent about this: I never knew about many of these possible selves until I studied history—literally—and realized that my narrow assumptions about Latino identity. Henry Lowe. neo-Nazis. they are slaves to their own self-hated. and ignorance.

‘They create desolation and call it peace. and often must. the bad. we can move. socially constructed labels that are empirically false and non-essential. Race is a myth and. the Chinese monopolizing the term ‘Asian.” Someone made our house at some point and time.’” Those who would erase race and ethnicity for the sake of nationality. the physical structure. it is not eternal or fixed. One of them wrote. but we can. nor should they. they are myths. The truth is this: whiteness and blackness are historical inventions. In short. has no essential or natural reason for being what we call “home. it can burn.’ There are other ways to appeal to larger categories and leave the smaller ones behind. consider this example: we all know that our house. and the world will continue to exist. Racial myths don’t go away overnight. The mythos of whiteness and blackness contains all kinds of things: the good. and the ugly. Furthermore. a powerful reality.General brought peace to a rebellious province—by killing all its citizens. unlike Australia and Australians—where the nomenclature of the continent and the nation coincide—calling oneself an “American” makes about as much sense as the French claiming the term ‘European’ for their own specific use.   12   . operate within their real legacy. threaten to bring racial and ethnic peace by means of nationalistic cultural genocide. But the myth of race is itself a powerful. productive. as such a thing. Race is a myth. ‘[Ubi] solitudinem faciunt pacem appellant’— which means. Even his fellow Romans were shocked. and structure. but they are wrong nonetheless.’ or the Egyptians taking total control over the word ‘African. To understand this point better. and they are not all genocidal or poorly named. We cannot confuse these myths with natural reality. A house is not the same thing as a home. shadow. Humanists who reject any race but the “human race” are not spouting dangerous nonsense like the previous suggestion. and intimate reality.

constructed house. at the very same time. in another sense. and. the feeling of “being-at-home” or “not-at-home” when you are either closeto or far-from your house reveals the power of this myth and the way it operates in your real life. we need race without racism. We need to recognize that there are no white or black people in one sense. We should treat it like Cordelia’s love for her father: “according to my bond. we need magic without incantations. At the same time. nor should we essentialize race in order to preserve its mythos. or fail to understand his desire to be home just because it was based on an arbitrary. but the Truth of the matter is both: we need myth without superstition. Mexican. Correctness might dictate that we have to have it one-way or the other. and even dangerous. we need mystery without deception. no more and no less. and the rest is a myth. White History can deepen our imaginative abilities in order to avoid the impoverished options   13   . culture. Chicano. and the rest. serious. Last year. Let me be clear: We should not abolish race for being a myth.Calling it “home” instead of a “house” is based on a domestic myth: the myth of home. but. cracking discussions on race. I know that being Latino. I must never forget that they come with real. and he did.” This is why we need to have White History Month at Wabash: not to celebrate it. In order to answer Malcolm X’s existential challenge we must see things in both ways. There is a real difference between the magic and mystery of his house and a sterile. Tejano. the myth of race. my grandfather wanted to die at home. but to use it to thicken-up our thin. I could never disrespect. cold hospital room. many things about that mythology make me who I am—it is a house that helps me feel at home. Hispanic. limitations. And while I hold many of these racial and ethnic myths dear. in his house instead of at the hospital. we need to find out where these names came from and how they operate and become powerful.

we will need the imaginary health to know that we have this option to begin with. in its place.” or “I think I’ll be a human person. just might. I truly and wholeheartedly believe this. and investigate questions of whiteness and white identity throughout the entire year. To do this. instead it is a call to take these months seriously and add to their number. it would be Wabash. alongside other questions. “I would prefer not to answer your (stupid) question. This is not to suggest that we abolish the months dedicated to these histories. As I said before: this is an enchanting place.   14   .” or reply. make your own food instead or. then don’t eat it.” Don’t fall prey to the limited options that have put a straightjacket our imagination and impede us dwelling in authentic communion with each other in love. “yes” or “beautiful. If there ever were a place where we might. “being is sufficient for me at the moment. be able to do this. It is why I am so honored and excited to accept the college’s generous invitation to extend my time here into next year. starve with dignity. If someone asks you “What do you want to be when you grow up?” say. this is my official. I propose that Wabash add “White History Month” to the official college calendar. So here it is.” or give Bartleby’s reply. If all the food at a buffet looks and tastes like shit.offered by the two-headed monster we call the Democrats and the Republicans. which leads to the next part: Secondly. across the College and the curriculum. and even Wabash History—and that. even if that different “something” is very old. the conservatives and the liberals. we promote the serious study of history in and out of class. perhaps. White History. twofold proposition: I propose first that Wabash stop celebrating history—Black History. and then we will need the additional mental resources to create something different.

without the careful study of the invention of white identity. which would fail to imagine anything at all.As with Woodson’s 1926 proposal of Negro History Week. we will only imagine parts at the expense of the whole. Man I am not. In perilous times such as these. imaginary spirit. a disenchanted. We cannot sin against hope by becoming presumptuous or despairing. but I have… I have a first and last name. Without White History Month. we cannot afford to willfully commit another failure of the imagination. In that hopeful. A mixed translation of the above   15   . I end as I began—with translation and poetry: I have no mother or father. I reclaim the simple right to be who we are. where the schooled are miseducated: the world of the living dead. secular world of inversions and posers: where the News is old. it is about existence—it is about seeking authenticity in a world where artificiality has become quite normal. my own proposal today is not about equality. Nor do I send children to school. where the rich are bankrupt.

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