I didn’t know what Black History month was until 8th grade. That year my teacher showed our class a video series called "Eyes on the Prize" and I saw for the first time, real life pictures of Black people water hosed and arrested for marching and boycotting. 8th grade. I remember 3 things: maintaining a full-on locked stare at the screen, the silence of my classmates and the silence of our teacher. He never expounded on the videos or provided any context for them. We came into social studies class and sat at our desks. He turned the lights off, turned the videos on and then turned the lights on and the videos off when the bell rang. We did this for a full week of class.
My 8th grade mind told me that because the film was in Black and White, that it was just something that could only happen a long time ago, The lesson I was subconsciously taught in that first week? Black struggle was a thing of the past.
The next week we had to write an essay on a Black inventor. So, for that second week we came into the classroom and watched videos on Black inventors. We entered the classroom and sat at our desks. The same teacher turned off the lights and turned on the video of Black inventors. I sat glued to the video only glancing away to take notes for my paper, until the bell rang and he turned the video off and turned the lights back on again. He did that every day until the last day of that week. On the last day of that week, my teacher told us how extraordinary these Black people were for going to college, possessing intellect and proving to America that Black people could do it. The lesson I learned that week?- Black people are exceptional when White America validates them, and showing White people that we are intelligent is our duty as good citizens.
We didn’t learn anything about my ancestral history outside of the setting of the Civil Rights period. We didn’t learn about the Trans-Atlantic slave trade routes or the tribal kingdoms of the continent of Africa, or the multitude of cultures, languages and ethnicities that make up the African continent during that Black History month or the African roots of Islam and Christianity. The lesson I learned? African history is not Black History and African history is not Christian history.
We didn’t learn that Rosa Parks was an individual. We didn’t learn that Ruby Bridges was a person. We didn’t learn that Fannie Lou Hammer was a person. We didn’t talk about what it must have felt like as a Black woman to get on a bus in the racist south and be defiant. The sheer will over terror you must possess to walk into school surrounded by national guards because of your ancestry. They were Civil Rights activists not mothers, sisters daughters. The lesson I learned?-Black people are a monolith lacking individual nuance.
So, should I blame the school system or my parents for that? I mean, I am Black and my parents are Black, so even if the school system failed, which it absolutely did, they should have introduced me to this month of heritage before the 8th grade right?
Well, what if I was White should I have had the same expectation from my parents? If my parents were Interracial, Asian, Indigenous? Is teaching Black history solely the responsibility of Black people?
Were those videos supposed to teach me American History, Black History in America, what racism looks like, or instill some sense of pride? I have no idea.
All I remember are the unspoken lessons.
The one that stuck out the most: Black people are exceptional when they are validated by White America.When they have shown themselves to be “productive” in the majority sense, and when they do this, they help our White American fellow citizens understand how racism is wrong. (i.e.The more Black excellence is circulated in White spaces, the more anti-racism spreads ?)
I asked myself this year: Has Black History Month become Anti-racism month? Has anti-racism become the primary responsibility of Black people in America? Is anti-racism a byproduct of Black achievement? Is Black heritage inherently anti-racism pedagogy?
This is the month that we pump out Black achievement to the public en masse. And it's because of this, I find myself pretty frustrated with a certain pervasive narrative entering this month. One that places more value on teaching non-Black people reasons why Black people are important by showing them Black folk who have made notable contributions to American society than above the value of telling Black stories for the sake of celebrating Black achievement.
See, this is why I became a little frustrated with Black History month this year.
I myself have been guilty of flocking to the social medias to teach after an unwarranted police shooting versus just sitting with how a mother must feel after loosing her child on national television in that manner.
Black pride, no matter how proud it is, has still been shaped by Western ideologies about race. Consequently, there is still a desire to see White people "get it” in the back of my mind. That really creates some conflict in a Christian Black Woman who wants better for the world, yet at the same time wants to protect her heritage. Who also realizes that better for everyone else has often left her ancestral heritage vulnerable, yet just this month alone I've been invited to speak for Black history on two occasions and my presentations have been about anti-racism!
I know why Black history was created by Dr. Carter G. Woodson. More importantly I know why it was created, when it was created I understand and will never undermine the importance of centering the Black contributions in medicine, in tech, education, politics, science, art and religion no matter how far-reaching. When will saying “Black people are important” be enough for America without having to present an encyclopedic reference to Black millionaires, or heart surgeons or record breaking athletes or Madiba type figures? When will Blackness not be seen as antithetical to Whiteness.
On the flip side when I express how valuable Black stories are, the resistance I'm usually met with is that Black people shouldn't be highlighted in a "post-racial" society because it's divisive. This is a false equivalency. There is this failure to realize Black excellence does not impede on White excellence...in reality. This is not a zero sum game. In the American psyche yes, but not in the real universe. The numbers are not even in our favor. There are 42 million Black people in America out of 328 million people. Everything we do in this country as Black people is a difficult climb to the summit of “stake in the history” of this country.
Are Black stories "enough" anymore or are they being told in order to defeat racism. Is that goal of Black stories? I don't know if I'm comfortable with this.
When will American history become an even playing field that also respectfully maintains pluralism and doesn't put the onus of teaching anti-racism on Blacks and other minorities?
At the same time, anytime America says “we” and moves further into progressive civil rights movements, most of the influencing ideologies come from a majority narrative that gets to define what “we” looks like. And any assimilation to that ideology by people of color is almost a survival tool so as to not be seen as separatists “causing division”. Even the biological race theories- although scientifically debunked- are still baked into these “we” movements, and mainly serve White populations by helping them to see how the theory of race undergirds their position in the American caste system. The further this month moves into a mainstream cultural practice, the dimmer the importance of Black stories for the sake of Black stories gets in my eyes.
So then what is this month about in 2021? How do our non-Black friends, family and neighbors enter or observe this month? Our interracial families?
There is a responsibility to make sure this month is not tokenized by media as it continues to gain acceptance and cross over into mainstream. To be not caricatured by non-Black teachers in social studies class and to not become a month that positions Black people as ones primarily accountable to teach anti-racism in a self-proclaimed "United" nation.
Or are we all just flipping the lights off and flipping the videos about Black people on this month, then flipping the lights on and the videos off at the end of the month.
I’m looking for an equitable, pluralistic and healthy representation of ethnic “We”. One where Marie Van Brittan Brown be discussed in tech circles at dinner tables in the same capacity as Steve Jobs, without removing the importance of her being Black and female.
There's no simple solution, but I believe we are headed there.
So, this year I took this month to observe the inventors, heroes, social justice icons, matriarchs and patriarchs and the next generation of Black global citizens who have and will do great things, who have done and will do small important things outside of the story arch of wanting the rest of the world to “get it.” To learn about how Black history month is celebrated in Canada, Ireland, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. To cheer the footprints of those who are running countries, passing out food to homeless people, leading on the front lines of the pandemic, teaching their children and leading congregations and classrooms without worrying if my Instagram post of an influential Black leader will cause me to have to engage in a false equivalency discourse.
I spent less teaching, posting and answering questions and more time reading and being inspired. I'd like to keep the lights shining on that inspiration every day.
How old were you when you first learn about Black History month?
Does your family discuss it? If so what do they discuss?
A Utah school has allowed families to opt their kids out of Black History month- is Black history anti-American history?
Is Black history meant to be anti-racism education or a celebration of heritage or both?
I hear my evangelical community say Jesus is the answer. Yet in Biblical accounts, the mindset of the disciples was still prejudiced even in the presence of Christ modeling equity for them. (ex. Samaritans) Why is this answer lacking nuance? What more is He asking of us?
The evangelical colorblindness trope fuels the argument against celebrating Black History month, but on St. Patrick's Day Irish pride and green abounds. Is this a false equivalency OR is there something more sinister there
Have progressive mainstream approaches taken the heroic stances of anti-racism from the Black ancestors that originally fought for it.