A White Girl’s Journey Through Black History Month

Watercolor style image of the silhouette of an African American woman
Watercolor of an African American woman

By Kali Nelson

It’s Black History Month and I couldn’t figure out what exactly to write about that could do this month justice. I knew that I should acknowledge this momentous event, but how eluded me. I spent a better portion of the month unsure, there were so many things I could write about. I could write about #BlackLivesMatter, or how racism affects pregnancy, or black feminists we’ve forgotten about. I had so many options to choose from, it overwhelmed me. So I started to read. I read Roxanne Gay’s book, “Bad Feminist.” I watched a documentary on Audre Lorde and I read her poetry. I read Maya Angelou, I googled “black feminist.” I sat and thought about what I, a white, middle-class woman, could bring to the table on this topic.

I figured I couldn’t bring much, to be honest.

Then I read a poem Maya Angelou wrote called On Working White Liberals, and it hit me. I’d write about this, this is what white people need to read. Angelou is telling White people what we can do to help them with this battle. To me, it said that she doesn’t want us to fight it for them but to follow the Black man.  This poem was published in Maya Angelou’s Poems in 1981.

“On Working White Liberals” by Maya Angelou

I don’t ask the Foreign Legion
Or anyone to win my freedom
Or fight my battle better than I can

Though there’s one thing that I cry for
I Believe enough to die for
That is every man’s responsibility to man.

I’m afraid they’ll have to prove first
That they’ll watch the Black man move first
Then follow him with faith to kingdom come.
This rocky road is not paved for us,
So, I’ll believe in Liberals’ aid for us
When I see a white man load a Black man’s gun.

In the first stanza, Angelou states that she doesn’t ask someone else to win her freedom for her. She mentions the Foreign Legion, which is a military group in France made up almost entirely of foreign nationals. She makes the point that no-one can fight her battles better than she can. This is important to remember in these times because society is forgetting that there are people better qualified to speak about issues such as race or class discrimination. This is a reminder that other White people, myself included, need to listen and support people of color. Society likes to forget that the oppressed group has a much better ground to stand on when talking about inequality.

The second stanza says that we have a responsibility to our fellow man. Angelou cries for it, she believes in this principle enough to die for it. White people have a responsibility to remember that we have a privilege here, and we need to listen when minority groups say something isn’t right. We need to drop this white savior complex that we get when talking about inequality. Angelou is saying that the Black community doesn’t need White people to save them, they can do it themselves. White people created the problem in the first place, how can we expect to fix it?

Angelou’s last stanza is what she says White people can do to support the Black community.  She is skeptical of liberals because of what has happened in the past. She says that she will believe liberals’ aid when they load the gun for a Black man. She will not believe us until we are there supporting, not leading, the fight. There will be no White hero to come in and save the day because they do not need us to do it.

Black history is hard to fit into the shortest month of the year, but it should not be confined to just February. Americans make children learn history year-round and it cannot possibly be too hard to throw in more Black history. Angelou tells us that she will believe White liberals when they “load the Black man’s gun.” So, in remembrance of what I’ve learned this month, I shall now try to apply it. I invite you to try it with me.

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