Black History Month
Celebrating Black History Year-Round
I have complicated feelings about Black History Month. As a child in elementary school, I can remember having an odd ache of anxiety when the time came to present the requisite book report or presentation on a notable African American. I remember there being a list to choose from and how, year after year, my classmates — primarily white — would trot out the same usual suspects of "Great Black People of History": Martin Luther King Jr., Harriet Tubman, George Washington Carver, Rosa Parks …
Although these words were not spoken, the pervasive feeling was that there was a finite list of major contributions that African Americans had made and that they could all pretty much be covered in one month. These people would then be put back on the shelf and never be mentioned again — until the following February. In between Februarys, the class could go back to the “real” or mainstream history, which was overwhelmingly made by men of European descent.
"Black History Month should be the kick-off to a celebration that lasts all year long."
Although I couldn’t articulate any of this as a child, the feeling hasn’t left me. In the wake of the murder of George Floyd and the insurrection of January 6, which has racism at its root, I’ve been thinking a lot about Black History Month and the much-touted idea of being “anti-racist.” While I am, of course, in favor of shining a light on the contributions and achievements of people of color, women, and those anywhere on the spectrum of gender identity, I am conflicted by the feeling that just having a month designated to any particular group is a form of segregation, or “othering,” if it is not coupled with a more integrated approach to acknowledging the contributions of all groups, all the time.
If the basic desire of all living beings is to be safe, seen, and celebrated, then Black History Month should be the kick-off to a celebration that lasts all year long. Perhaps because they happen around the same time of year, BHM and Lent have been loosely related in my mind since I was a child, sort of like calendar cousins. I know a number of people who will give up something they might consider a vice (but that they especially enjoy) for Lent. Then once Holy Saturday arrives, they’re back at it. What was the meaning of this, I wondered as a kid.
Business as Usual
BHM begs the same question: for a month, we “celebrate” Black people, and then for the other 11 months of the year, it’s business as usual — with knees on necks. This does not feel like real progress or celebration to me. Instead, I wish BHM was approached from a more integrated perspective.
As we all surf the waves of this pandemic, the concept of wellness is being talked about more and more. To me, wellness suggests a more holistic state of being well, rather than simply not being ill. If we apply the goal of wellness to overcome the sickness of systemic racism, then it’s not enough to take the cultural or educational equivalent of a megadose of zinc and vitamin C during BHM.
Instead, wouldn’t it be smarter to ingest a comprehensive multivitamin every day? For example, let’s revisit the elementary school setting. Wouldn’t it be better if kids in a science class are learning about research chemist Percy Lavon Julian, whose work paved the way for birth-control pills and cortisone, and astrophysicists Jedidah Isler and Neil deGrasse Tyson, as part of the regular curriculum rather than trotting them out only in February — if at all? In English class, are Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, James Baldwin, and Walter Mosley in the canon? And if we’re talking about history, let’s really dig into Frederick Douglass, Shirley Chisholm, and the Tuskegee Airmen. And I don’t even have the time or word count to get into our contributions in the arts, but go check out actor Ira Frederick Aldridge and poet Gwendolyn Brooks for extra credit.
A Tapestry of Truth for the Nation
I know there are some progressive schools where this kind of intersectional discourse is already happening, but I’m sure they are the exceptions, not the rule. In fact, that phrase of being the exception instead of the rule is sort of what BHM feels like — here are the diamonds of your race, sex, or group while the rest are rubble. I’m thankful for the films and television shows that have showcased the contributions of Black people in myriad ways — Hidden Figures and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks spring to mind. And I’m so grateful to artists like Beyoncé — who uplifts and educates on Black history and culture with just a hairstyle or an outfit just about every day. All hail Queen Bey!
I believe that, ultimately, true equality will be ushered in by artists and entertainers of every discipline because, through them, we’re able to unite with each other. I guess my desire for BHM to really live up to its mandate is related to my desire for the whole truth of America to finally be told in total, rather than in whitewashed fragments. I envision a future where the threads of all the intersecting stories, from Native Americans on, would be equitably woven into a tapestry of the truth of this nation.
There is no America without African Americans, or any other group. We are not addenda or footnotes; we are co-stars in the cast and deserve equal billing, not a special thanks. Perhaps that truth-telling, from our first days in primary school, would scorch the seeds of racism before they even have a chance to sprout.
This post is part of a monthlong February CircleAround series tied to Black History Month — the first since the loud calls for social justice this past summer — in which we asked writers to explore the topic of race in America from a variety of perspectives. The murder of George Floyd last summer catalyzed a national reckoning on race, with many questions to be answered. To see all the posts in the series — including relevant news stories — visit here. And if you'd like to contribute to the series, send us your thoughts to firstname.lastname@example.org or post on our "2021 Inspiration Wall."