One might think that over 400 years of slavery and oppression would suppress the creativity and vision of a people. But in retrospect, the injustice imposed on black people only gave way to a steady flow of visionaries that found ways to express themselves in a broad range of God-given skills and talents.
To move the needle from necessary to noble, industry leaders like Google can give black culture its due by financially compensating its cultural innovators, giving them opportunities to be successful, and placing them in positions of decision-making authority.Google’s recent “Most Searched: A Celebration of Black History Makers” ad campaign for Black History Month features many historical achievements of African Americans, a true testament to the variety and magnitude of this expansive creative expression born from oppression. The official commercial is a montage of footage showing leaders and monumental moments in U.S. history that have shaped and continue to influence American culture. From the arts, sciences, music, and movies to literature, sports, and politics, the ad emphasizes the obvious reality that America would be unrecognizable today were it not for the contributions and intelligence of African Americans. There could be no America without African Americans, and Google’s ad is a beautiful celebration of that reality.
Even still we might ask if that celebration faces black history honestly enough and, if so, what such acknowledgment demands of viewers. Can we bask in the glow of this celebration while ignoring or downplaying the significance of black suffering? Doing so threatens to unravel the very fabric for what makes African Americans America’s culture movers. In Toni Morrison’s book Playing in the Dark she expounds on this fact: “Black slavery enriched the country’s creative possibilities. What rose up out of collective needs to allay internal fears and to rationalize external exploitation was an American Africanism—a fabricated brew of darkness, otherness, alarm, and desire that is uniquely American.” In Morrison’s view, color-blindness and the willful ignorance of the African American presence, “which shaped the body politic, the Constitution, and the entire history of the culture,” misrepresents the full American experience.
One way America’s various industries can grant credence to the black cultural experience is by doing what Google did with their celebration of black history: carving out time and energy to praise the undeniable evidence that America is what it is because of African American contributions to the culture. Indeed there could be no America—no vast wealth, no capitalism—without black bodies to cultivate the natural resources that created the richness of this great land. Some might argue that companies like Google and Dodge Ram are only attempting to capitalize on black culture by running such ads. But even if that is the intent, responses of acrimony must not overshadow the overall recognition of African American contributions. To accredit black people for what they do for American culture is necessary. But it’s not sufficient. This acknowledgment must be done with a holistic perspective.
Of course admitting the evil atrocities that lay at the foundations of American culture—which is often led by or improved upon by the African American experience—is undeniably uncomfortable. But embracing the discomfort is better than ignoring it. Morrison says this habit of overlooking race and its accompanying struggles is often understood as “a graceful, even generous, liberal gesture. To notice is to recognize an already discredited difference. To enforce its invisibility through silence is to allow the black body a shadowless participation in the dominant cultural body.” So to fully celebrate and participate in African American culture and its achievements requires a comprehensive recognition of the accompanying anguish that produced such cultural innovation.
To move the needle from necessary to noble, industry leaders like Google can give black culture its due by financially compensating its cultural innovators, giving them opportunities to be successful, and placing them in positions of decision-making authority. True celebration, honest appreciation, demands more from us than surface applause. Recognition of another’s worth entails ceding power, allowing another what is rightfully theirs. This type of economic opportunity is at the root of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, which Google highlights at the end of their advertisement. Much of the cultural intangibles that African Americans create—dances, music, social media virility—go uncompensated. Granted it is difficult to copyright, patent, or protect the intangibles like the swag surf (which you might have seen at college football or basketball games) or the viral cheerleading Stomp and Shake (which was arguably botched when attempts were made to replicate it). But such intangibles are only proof that black people are capable of unifying and leading people across various spectrums of race, wealth, and class.
The result of these innovative works in black culture inspired the creation of many other mainstream ideas that have been accredited with brilliance. But these replicated cultural commodities are sometimes just cheap imitations of original black ideas. The hit show Living Single is a classic example. Focusing on the escapades of six male and female unmarried friends living in Brooklyn whose occupations vary substantially, Living Single was gentrified in the widely acclaimed series Friends.
Our individualist/capitalist culture teaches us that there are rewards for people who come up with great ideas, and even greater rewards for those who can innovate them. As a result, we try to protect original ideas with laws and patents. But in creative arts, the protections are virtually non existent. So call it a fault of our society for a lack of appreciation for original thought or a disconnect of cultures, but for situations like the Living Single/Friends pillaging, the losers are often the originators, and the originators are often black. For reasons like these, actress Erika Alexander (who plays lawyer Maxine Shaw on Living Single) believes that African Americans should be duly compensated for what they offer to the whole of American culture. “Funding is ridiculously small for the power of what we’ve given not only to this nation, but to the world,” Alexander told Jemele Hill on the Jemele Hill Is Unbothered podcast. What African Americans present to the wholeness of American culture is priceless, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ascribe any concrete value to what is offered.
Taking what black people create, ingesting it, and moving on without regard of compensation, nor understanding the realities of black struggle on which the edifice of black culture was built, is a poor attempt at confining black culture to a pocket of society. But as we’ve already explored, this is impossible, because black culture is American culture, no matter the hyphens we use to make the term more applicable to our various ethnicities.
Unfortunately, the way our churches are (and have been) organized in America is oftentimes a reflection of this attempt at pocketing sections of black culture. Even in “multiethnic” churches there sometimes remains this desire for a show of diversity without a genuine concern for explicit unity or the surrender of power that unity requires. For the church to be unified, we must let go of our dearly beloved preferences and embrace the unknowns of cultures not our own. Armed with the truth of the gospel, we have an opportunity to lead and show America what true unity can look like for a society still so often divided across party, class, and racial lines.
Celebrating “Black History Makers” for the “moments in American history that captivate us all,” as Google states in its introduction for their advertisement, is vital to understanding what it means to be American—to be human. We express it in the ways we create, sing, play, and share culture. So ignoring or downplaying the multifaceted cultural contributions of African Americans undermines the way God uses our intelligence, skills, and assets to show us more of Himself.
The beautiful, electrifying, and heart wrenching moments depicted in Google’s commercial show us the tangential elements of what makes America who she is today. The timing of the advertisement, unveiled specially for Black History Month, is not lost upon us. Black History does not run alongside “American” history, because it is American history. So until those particulars are recognized as married to the full American cultural experience, America will only remain a fraction of its perceived greatness. The recognition and celebration of America’s Black History Makers is appreciated, but we would do better to go beyond the highlights of success and entrench ourselves in the everyday progress of investing in black people and black businesses as though they were fully American. Or—even better—as if they were our brothers and sisters.