December 5, 2018
Zita Cristina Nunes, writing for Smithsonian Magazine, reflects on the work of Dorothy Porter, a Howard University librarian who, in the 1930s, sought to decolonize the school’s library by ditching the Dewey Decimal system. As Porter explained, the Dewey system only “had one number—326—that meant slavery, and they had one other number—325…that meant colonization.” All books related to Black people were relegated to these two numbers. Porter transformed the Howard collection by re-classifying works by genre and author to “highlight the foundational role of black people in all subject areas.” In so doing, Porter was celebrating Black self-representation while also uprooting false narratives and stereotypes about Black people. The new system revealed new global and historical patterns, as well as rare and unusual work otherwise obscured by a Eurocentric classification of knowledge. Today, scholars of African-Americans and the African Diaspora continue Porter’s legacy: “this current work combats the effects of segmenting research on Black people along lines of nation and language, and…fights the gatekeeping function of many colonial archives.”
In order to remind people that women have always served in the armed forces, female veterans are calling for 1) Manhattan’s East 23rd Street VA Medical Center to be re-named for Margaret Corbin, a female Revolutionary War veteran and 2) a pronoun adjustment to the motto that appears on all VA hospitals. Corbin was a heroic soldier, but after being seriously injured in battle, she was infamously given only half a male soldier’s pension. The motto in question, a line from Abraham Lincoln, goes as follows: “…to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan.” Advocates want to change the male pronouns to the gender-neutral “them” and “their.” While the VA says they have no position on the proposed motto change, the current VA secretary, Robert Wilkie, says that, rather than tamper with Lincoln’s words, he wants to stress the improvements made to female veteran services. But Republican Rep. Brian Mast of Florida, a veteran and sponsor of a bipartisan bill supporting the change, sees it differently, “There’s no doubt that female veterans face unique challenges and healthcare needs that the VA has not yet been able to successfully address…Fixing this critical failure starts at the top and changing the mission statement is a needed first step.”
Teaching Tolerance, the K-12 education initiative of the Southern Poverty Law Center, lists common pitfalls when it comes to inclusive holiday celebrations: 1) Using the more inclusive phrase “Happy Holidays” is great, but pairing it with almost all Christmas-themed decorations, and maybe a dreidel or Kwanzaa candle here and there, is still a demonstration of how other religions’ holidays are marginalized compared to Christmas. 2) While Christmas is a big deal in Christianity, Passover and Rosh Hashanah, for example, are more important than Hanukkah in the Jewish tradition. Focusing only on holidays that happen to fall around December because Christmas is in December is another demonstration of marginalization of other cultures. 3) Finally, when we have less information about cultures different from ours but we still want to include them, we often risk exoticizing them. For example, New Year’s celebrations like making resolutions and using noisemakers may seem “regular” and not so special compared to a Lion Dance for Chinese New Year. While it’s great to include something like the Lion Dance in celebrations, taking the time to learn about the meaning and traditions behind the holiday would help avoid the exoticizing effect and the feelings of marginalization it engenders.