Google’s Black History Month ad, “The Most Searched: A Celebration of Black History Makers,” which aired during the Grammy’s and was widely celebrated, is an exciting array of images portraying Black excellence. Millions will have an opportunity to take in the breathtaking artistry, poetry and intellect that represent the Black American experience.
As I watched, however, I could not help but notice that the pride I felt was tinged with another, less positive emotion. For virtually all of the icons in the 90-second clip, I also could recount examples of how many of these same heroes were pressured into silence—to not use their wisdom, prominence and sense of justice—and not apply systemic critiques of American society and advocate for equality.
Like the dubious advice once offered to Google’s “most searched athlete” LeBron James—after he criticized President Donald Trump—prominent African Americans should “shut up and dribble.”
I suspect many Black Americans will know the feeling—our talents are often appreciated until we apply those same skills toward advocating for social change.
In the ad, these images are triumphant, courageous, but in real life, they came at considerable cost. In the cases of Dr. King and Malcolm X—the focus of Google’s “most searched autobiography”—it cost them their lives.
In July 2015, Ebony magazine ran an issue with a provocative cover. It read, “America Loves Black People,” with the word “Culture” superimposed over “People.” Then Ebony editor-in-chief Kierna Mayo wrote that “America truly loves what it perceives as Black—from baby oil to butts, collard greens to crunk—but actual Black people? Perhaps not so much.”
If the most preeminent and barrier-breaking Black Americans are scrutinized, savaged and silenced when they speak truth to power—how does this manifest in the lives of ordinary, everyday Black people?
I’m reminded of the recent policing of young Black children, for the length and style of their natural hair—even as journalist and creator of The New York Times’ 1619 Project, Nikole Hannah-Jones, tells us that the “avant-garde nature of Black hairstyles and fashion displays a vibrant reflection of enslaved people’s determination to feel fully human through self-expression,” and we learn that these young people are excellent, engaged students; their ancestors’ wildest dreams.
Legal scholar Michelle Alexander wrote, “Our understanding of racism is therefore shaped by the most extreme expressions of individual bigotry, not by the way in which it functions naturally, almost invisibly (and sometimes with genuinely benign intent), when it is embedded in the structure of a social system.”
The widespread policing of Black people’s behavior, when White people are often excused or not even noticed for similar actions, is an example of the embedded discrimination of which Alexander speaks.
Those who demonstrate Black excellence often see their accomplishments diminished when they should be celebrated, such as when an Italian gymnast suggested (and later apologized) in 2013 that Simone Biles’ world championship was awarded because of her skin color.
Black History Month is a moment for celebration, and Google’s impressive campaign should spur national discussion and global admiration. But it should also stir personal reflection.
As Hannah-Jones remarked in the 1619 Project, “‘Mainstream’ society has coveted our style, our slang and our song, seeking to appropriate the one truly American culture as its own.” I would add that another feature of this coveting is erasure.
I can’t look at the video of a Prince guitar solo named “most searched guitar solo” in Google’s ad without recalling his iconic solo for George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” when both were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004 (Harrison’s honor was posthumous). Prince seemingly responded to a snub—not being named to Rolling Stone’s list of top 100 guitar players that year—by eclipsing the rock legends on stage, clearly reminding the writers of his deserved place. (Prince was named #33 on the revised list in 2011.)
We should applaud and praise the iconic moments and achievements of Google’s #TheMostSearched—but as these talented Americans entertain, enlighten, educate, and inspire us as we watch this video, we must embrace their complex fullness and revere their observations of how America remains a work in progress. They are the unflinching mirror to America’s visage, and we as a nation will not fulfill our greatest potential until we can look at all aspects of our history.
Dr. Richard J. Reddick is an associate professor and associate dean for equity, community engagement and outreach for the College of Education at the University of Texas at Austin.