At the same time, a desire for "political correctness" and for every community to find women's and black history has led to a new type of demeaning tokenism and widespread pigeonholing. The picture at the top of this post is a picture of Utica's attempt to recognize the accomplishments of women. The plaque reads: "The City of Utica dedicates this park in the memory of Maryann Riggalls-Coyne. Her bold spirit helped forge opportunities for past and future generations of women. In both industry and the community, as one of the first females in such business organizations as the Mohawk Builder's Exchange and such civic organizations as Rotary, Ms. Riggalls-Coyne lead the way for all women to dream, to lead and to accomplish."
Now don't get me wrong, I stand firmly behind movements to write the history of suppressed peoples into the landscape using monuments, plaques and similar measures. What I do have a problem with is an organization like the City of Utica creating a token to this movement: a tiny little strip of grass in the heart of a blasted post-industrial ghetto.
Utica has, according to it's Parks and Recreation Website, 39 parks and monuments-an impressive number. To then go ahead and declare that "this one" is about women is insulting. Contrary to its goal of empowering women, it instead reinforces a gender hierarchy by implying that women's concerns are inferior and that women's accomplishments deserve only a median strip in the brownfields. Maybe we should erect plaques to Hispanic entrepreneurs in janitor's closets? Perhaps naming bathrooms in bus stations after Martin Luther King would be a fitting tribute?
This type of insulting bow to "political correctness" is repeated time and time again, not only in our monuments, but in our rituals surrounding history and our celebration of culture. The call for a recognition of Blacks in history is amongst the noblest of traditions, but to segregate it into a single "Black History Month," makes the inference that Black history is not common history that affects all of us but some indulgement of only Black people. It allows for the other 11 months to be the unchallenged domain of White history. Instead of Black History Month, we need a year-round people's history that recognizes that dynamic interplay of all of the peoples that forged the present world.
Likewise, our Upstate cities do not need another Martin Luther King Boulevard. Dr. King's actions deserve celebration, but by having an MLK Boulevard in every city as an antidote to racist street naming patterns systematically denies the existence of local African-American communities and their importance in our own histories. By doing that, it justifies racist ideologies within our cities that view Blacks as recent interlopers from NYC coming up to prey on our decaying communities instead of the long-term community members and humans worthy of dignity that they are.
Just because we have a Black History Month doesn't mean that the story of Black folk will be integrated into the general American story, it may in fact justify their continued exclusion.
Just because we name a road after Dr. Martin Luther King doesn't mean that we recognize the accomplishments of local Black people, it may in fact hinder their recognition.