Black history, warts and all

ERIN AUBRY KAPLAN is a contributing editor to Opinion.

FOR BLACK people obsessed with scrubbing the hated “n-word” clean from the American lexicon, I have another suggestion: the word “positive.”

Sounds counterintuitive, I know. What concept could be more antithetical to the “n-word,” more cherished by black folk hoping to counter negativity and crises that seem to have reached an all-time high? As a writer, I often hear admonishments from fellow African Americans to be positive, to illuminate the good side of our story. “Positive” is often shorthand for undoing the distortions of media and history at every opportunity, filling in the blanks or fleshing out context. For black journalists, this is a more than worthy charge.

But “positive” thinking can also do damage. In its fevered quest for good news, it often becomes as narrow in its way as the “n-word.” Take, for example, the flap over a Black History Month presentation at Celerity Nascent Charter School in the Crenshaw district.


The school first planned and then jettisoned a student presentation on Emmett Till, the 14-year-old black boy gruesomely murdered by Southern whites allegedly for whistling at a white woman in a small Mississippi town in 1955. As everyone should know, Till’s murder was a catalyzing moment in the civil rights movement that followed.

Celerity staff and parents decided that Till’s story, told by seventh-graders through a poem and brief reenactment, was inappropriate for an audience that included kindergarteners. I get that. But they also implied that the Till story as black history was not appropriate because it’s so, well, negative.

One parent who supported the ban said there was “no celebration in the Emmett Till story.” Celerity co-founder and Executive Director Vielka MacFarlane said that highlighting a murder just didn’t square with the goal of the assembly, which was accentuating black accomplishment and possibility. Celerity’s principal, Grace Canada, reportedly told a class of seventh-graders who’d prepared the poem that what Till did -- behavior of a kind that often turned into specious charges leveled by whites at black men to justify their lynching -- could constitute sexual harassment. McFarlane denies that Canada said this. The ironies are mind-boggling.

To make matters even more ironic, two teachers who helped prepare the seventh-grade program and signed a student petition supporting it were fired; the teachers were white and Latina. The student population at Celerity is overwhelmingly black. McFarlane won’t discuss the details of the firings because it’s a personnel matter.

I went to Celerity to talk to McFarlane about all this. She is not what I expected: personable, and energetic, a former L.A. Unified bureaucrat who gave up fabled job security to open Celerity and reverse the trend of academic failure among at-risk (translation: black and Latino) kids in South L.A.

McFarlane seems particularly attuned to the needs of the African American students who are the school’s majority; she herself is black, of Jamaican and Panamanian descent. She worries that the full story of Celerity is not being told. She points out that the Black History Month assembly included presentations on the murder of Medgar Evers and the beating of Freedom Riders by Ku Klux Klan members -- pretty negative stuff. She explains that the seventh-graders studied Till; it’s just that when it came to what went on stage, their treatment of the story didn’t make the cut.

“I don’t see this as contradictory,” says McFarlane, who called the treatment too graphic. “One thing doesn’t negate the other.”

She’s right, in theory. But she doesn’t quite explain why the Till presentation couldn’t have been made suitable for public consumption. I suspect that it’s because the slaughter of a boy close to middle-school age was too much of a downer, even for those vested in telling the truth.

Let’s face it, for all its heroes, black history in America is mostly a downer. It’s ugly. Unlike keepers of the Holocaust, which is taught in all its graphic detail (albeit perhaps not to kindergarteners), keepers of black history are still struggling with its meaning -- is it triumphant, tragic, both? What should blacks emphasize, and when? I understand the importance of being positive. But black people excising, or glossing over parts of our history for the sake of uplift, commit the same crime of denial as whites excising those same parts because they’d rather not think about black history at all.

Celerity doesn’t want one misstep to define it or invalidate the good things it seems to be doing. But the lesson here for the school, and for all of us, is that the full story -- positive, negative or neutral -- is always best.