The following is taken from Tayari Jones’s recent essay “Symbolism and Cynicism,” published in The Believer:
The irony is that those who would opt out of Black History Month share the goals of its founder. Although many black people grumble that it is not their responsibility to educate white people about our worth, most would agree that racism stems largely from ignorance, the antidote to this is obviously education, and somebody’s got to do it. The question is whether refusing the invitations serves any purpose besides giving the writer a sense that she is doing something to address the problem. This, of course, brings in a second irony: performing a symbolic action to critique the symbolism of another equally symbolic action. This quiet act of “resistance” vibrates no further than the consciousness of the writer in question. The flip side of the complaint—“The only time they invite me is in February”—is to imagine the scenario from the point of view of the audience: “The only chance I get to see these writers is in February.” This idea is even more compelling when you consider that audiences during Black History Month are disproportionately African American, many of whom live off the usual black book-tour circuit—D.C., Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, etc. They arrive for these February events in excited groups—sometimes they are members of book clubs, other times they are families.
Tayari Jones was our Jenny McKean Moore Writer in Residence in 2007-08. She is the author of Leaving Atlanta and The Untelling.