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Why we need Black History Month
I once wrote a blog decrying Black History Month. I take it back.
BY ALISHA ACQUAYE
In my collegiate past-life, I wrote a story for my campus’s alternative-thinking online publication, Onward State, that has been gnawing at my editorial conscience ever since. The piece was called, “What’s Black History Month, Anyway?” and I spent a good 1,000 words detailing why we should challenge the implications and the social impact of BHM.
It’s not what you think—I don’t believe the month should be abolished or negated. I was only arguing that we shouldn’t squeeze black influence into one narrow, short month. We should incorporate black history, and the history of other races and cultures, into the educational curriculum and social conversation year-round.
Reserving black topics to one month out of the year has always made me uncomfortable, because I am black for 12 months out of the year. The same goes for Women’s History Month, but sadly, for most of my childhood, that month wasn’t adequately celebrated in school.
We should incorporate black history, and the history of other races and cultures, into the educational curriculum and social conversation year-round.
Now I’m older, I’ve graduated from university and I’ve lived a bit longer. Looking back, I can see how juvenile and provocative writing that piece was, even if some part of me still holds onto the point behind it. I admit that writing and publishing it has always bothered me. I often feel nervous when I’m about to submit something about race, but that particular story left a bad taste in my mouth, especially since it was negatively received on my mostly white campus.
In the time since writing that piece, I have become more connected to my black femininity and the relationship it has with society—inside and outside of America. My position as a black human affects how society receives and perceives me, and I truly understood the weight of that while living abroad.
Aside from teaching full time in the classroom while living in Thailand, I held special Saturday English classes to a select group of ambitious Thai teenagers. On one of our final sessions, I spent the hour discussing American culture and diversity. I explained to them that a variety of ethnicities can be found in America, and I recall them being in awe of this. They were so used to seeing white culture in Western media.
In that moment, many other things became clear to me. My students had no idea about the oppressions of black people in America. They didn’t know the history of slavery, racism, discrimination, police brutality, or the civil rights movement.
The question of whether or not it is the responsibility of other nations to know so much about America’s issues and history is probably best saved for another article (or discussed in the comments section). I can say that realizing that in America, we do have this time to celebrate and learn about black culture, made me feel more grateful for this month than ever before.
In light of recent events in the media (the lack of ethnically diverse acting nominees in the Oscars, specifically from the acclaimed Selma), society (black fatalities at the hands of white police officers), and the shifts in cultural conversation, now is the perfect time for us all to strive for racial understanding, unity, and true equality. In short, Black History Month is more important than ever.
I explained to my students that a variety of ethnicities can be found in America, and I recall them being in awe of this. They were so used to seeing white culture in Western media.
Nowadays, more and more of us are able to discuss people of various sexualities, gender identities, mental and physical disabilities, cultures, and races, and how these differences have led to their experiences of discrimination and racism in America. Issues inside and outside of the black community are included in this conversation as well, and white privilege is usually at the forefront of this discussion. We are becoming more aware of what we need to work on.
On top of all this, feminism has become more popular, less threatening, and some will even say “trendy.” As a feminist, I have noticed that a lot of my feminist friends and the majority of the feminist work I read honors the idea that feminism is more than the belief and practice of influencing equality between men and women—it is the ability to understand, respect, and help achieve progress within all areas of humanity, including sexual diversity, disabilities, discrimination, gender identity, racism, and so on.
This generation has arranged the perfect space to discuss collective social change, and the acknowledgement of African-American oppression is one of the issues leading this movement. Now blackness and racism are a part of the discussion, not merely a couple of chapters found within a textbook.
Sure, we still have a long way to go. But we have come a long way, too.
I logged onto Google on February 1 and found that charming Langston Hughes doodle and thought, “Oh, yeah! It is Black History Month, isn’t it? I almost forgot, because I’m surrounded by black discussions every day.”
Perhaps it’s me. Maybe I am the one who has evolved. But I do think that there has been a steady and impressive change in how we approach diversity and discrimination nowadays. America is waking up. But since it is Black History Month, I am nonetheless excited and honored to be personally connected to this 28-day holiday. Instead of thinking that this month is a marginal slap in the face, I am thinking of some more productive ways we can celebrate it.
For one, we can talk about how we, as a people, can continue to make this world a more welcoming place for future generations to come. That involves adding more white people to this discussion, and it means that they have to really sit and listen to what the racial issues are, and learn their role in addressing them. We can normalize the discussion and education of black life to the point that it won’t feel like just a month anymore, it will feel like everyday life.
Black History Month can be used as a propeller to jump-start conversations on race in a wider sense, and how it affects black people and beyond.
Secondly, we can discover new (old?) black historical figures to honor in more complete and thoughtful ways, rather than only the standard (but still very important!) activists who paved the way.
Instead of thinking that this month is a marginal slap in the face, I am thinking of some more productive ways we can celebrate it.
Like Steve Biko, the founder of the influential Black Consciousness Movement, and also the creator of the famous words, “Black is beautiful.” Some others are Harriet Jacobs, one of the foremothers of black feminist writings; Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, feminist activist and mother of Fela Kuti; and Brother Bayard Rustin, an openly gay activist who helped organize the civil rights movement along with Martin Luther King.
Discovering black culture and stories isn’t only about digging into history. There are several contemporary artists whose work narrate the black experience. Take Kara Walker, the installation artist who poses black silhouettes on white walls to create scenes that infuse stereotypes, myths, and African-American oppression. Last summer, she showcased a gigantic nude black female sphinx composed entirely of white sugar at the Domino Sugar Factory in Brooklyn. This event attracted a diverse viewership—there were white, Asian, black, and Hispanic people in the crowd waiting to witness her piece.
There’s also Shikeith Cathey, an artist whose short film Black Men Dream has garnered much attention for its examination of emotions and vulnerability within black men in America.
And how about literature? I recently became acquainted with Afrofuturism, a genre of art that projects black issues and politics into a fantasy world. Some Afrofuturist authors on my list to read include Octavia Butler, Nisi Shawl, Ben Okri, Nalo Hopkinson, and Tananarive Due. There are musicians who utilize this tactic as well, like Janelle Monae and Sun Ra.
Thirdly, how about we bake some cookies and cupcakes and eat them in a cozy, well-decorated living room with rounds of tea? No? I tried. But on a similar note, we should give back to the black community, including black businesses, organizations, publications and entrepreneurs, by consciously participating in and supporting these endeavors.
Lastly, we can practice BHM every day. Besides learning more about black culture and the black American experience, striving for social rights and changing the system, we can do small things every day that can slowly change the world. That includes checking ourselves in our speech, actions, and thoughts toward others, ensuring that we aren’t adding to discrimination against other people, genders, races, cultures, and sexualities. Change begins within.
Photo via U.S. Embassy New Delhi/Flickr (CC BY N.D. 2.0)