Black History Month: Michael Boatman On Being Black with A Capital B
I wake up and immediately feel the difference. The air in my bedroom smells like fresh peaches and warm Georgia sunshine-like jerk chicken, etouféé and Chicago blues. Then I remember:
It's Black History Month.
And so on the first day, I rose. I sprung from my bed like a panther streaking across the Serengeti, into my bathroom, where I gripped my toothbrush and tore open the medicine cabinet, much like John Henry, that steel-drivin' man of myth, tore through a mountain of stone with only his hammer and his bare black hands.
It's Day 1 of my new life, you feel me? Our time has come! If I'm going to make the most of my new identity, I'd better get crack-a-lackin':
"Kids... we're black."
At breakfast, my four children squint at me the way Thomas Edison squinted at Lewis Latimer when Latimer invented the carbon filament (without which Edison's lightbulb would have remained a dark bulb).
"We're descended from proud, strong people, kids. Survivors. African-Americans. Mommy and I have been meaning to tell you, but we never got around to it."
"Duh, daddy," shrugs the teenager.
"Yeah," chimes my 10-year-old daughter (future Olympic diver/mime/award-winning software developer). "That's, so, like, 'Duh!'"
My wife is staring at me, too. She doesn't get it yet. She's black too. We all are... for most of the year. But in February... we're Black with a capital B. That's what I've decided we're going to be from now on: In February, the Boatmans are... Super Black.
My kids head off to schools more shockingly diverse than the Kansas City Board of Education's worst nightmare, while I head off to celebrate Our Day. I don't do Christmas, and Thanksgiving makes me nauseous, so, for the new me, February is Our Holiday. I mean to make the most of it.
"I'm going on a national tour to celebrate my Blackness," I announce.
"Have fun, Fredrick Douglass," my wife says, and heads off to her law practice.
Thanks to the Internet, I can travel to and through places which my ancestors in the Jim Crow South could have only dreamed.
By noon, I've visited New York's Apollo Theater and the Schaumburg Center; toured African-American Museums in Philadelphia, Chicago and Dayton, Ohio; I visited the campuses of historically black colleges-Tuskegee, Medgar Evers and Wilberforce. I eat lunch with the Huxtables, the Jeffersons and Fred and Lamont Sanford.
I read Cornell West, James Baldwin and President Barack Obama, accompanied by Stevie Wonder, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong and Lizz Wright. By the time my kids return home, my eyes are bleary and my back feels like I've been workin' on the railroad.
"Daddy, are there still slaves?" (This from my 7-year-old daughter: future Supreme Court Justice/concert pianist/fashion designer.) "Yes, honey," I answer. "Unfortunately, there are people who keep people as slaves."
"Were our ancestors slaves?"
"Yes, honey. And you know what's amazing about them?"
"All those people worked and fought and died without recognition from anybody. They helped build this country: We wouldn't be where we are today without them. And look how far we've come. We're judges and architects and artists and astronauts..."
"And presidents!" This from my 6-year-old son: future astrophysicist/award-winning eco-activist/singer-songwriter.
That's right, guys. And presidents. Pretty amazing, huh?"
"If we had a slave, would I still have to clean my room?"
Later that night, after dinner and my one-man reading of 'Manchild in the Promised Land,' I'm sitting with my wife, exhausted by my day of quiet reflection. I'm thinking of the career of one of my heroes: Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist, African-American and curator of the Hayden Planetarium at New York's Natural History Museum. I'm struck by the wonder of our common history, by pride in the sacrifices of those who went before us, and the amount of celebration still ahead: It's only Day 1.
"I'm only at deGrasse Tyson," I yawn, reaching to turn out my Harold Washington night-light. "I've still got 29 days of Blackness left."
"Twenty-seven," my wife says. "February's the shortest month of the year."