My relationship with Black History Month, like Black history in America, is complicated. There is so much about Black history to celebrate, remember and hold special.
The stories that come along with Black History Month are one of my favorite things to reflect on. I love having the opportunity to learn about Black inventors, Black doctors, and celebrating the stories of those trailblazers, and glass-ceiling breakers. I am in awe of the lives of historical Black “firsts”—first Black woman to graduate college, first Black General, first Black President. And I could spend hours poring over the culture influencers—artists, authors, and musicians—that played monumental roles in shaping American culture and therefore the culture of the Western world. There are so many stories in Black history that I’m proud of and inspired by, because the inspiring truth is that Black people have changed the face of the world.
But Black History Month is also linked to the unavoidable, dark truths of Black history in America. And the truth about Black history in our country is good, bad, and ugly.
In fact, there was a time when I didn’t want to participate in Black History Month. As a teenager, when the real picture of Black history in America came into sharp focus, I was crushed. It was too unjust, too painful. The Roots of it all. The stories of enslavement. Watching movies like 12-Years a Slave and knowing even the gruesome parts were prettied up for a Hollywood story. The stories of how Black people were enslaved, and the undeniable facts of the centuries-long ripple effect of slavery—it’s hard to put into words just how much it hurts. And growing up in the South, there was an added layer of pain, knowing that I was living in a community with people who were the descendants of slave owners.
When I matriculated to Tuskegee University, I’m grateful to say that my love of Black History Month was reignited. Tuskegee is one of the nation’s HBCUs (historically Black colleges and universities), sometimes referred to as the Black Ivy League. And my time studying there inspired me. I had access to Black history that isn’t taught enough in most schools. I learned more about Fredrick Douglas and George Washington Carver, and my education stoked my pride for being a part of such an important and special history.
All along the journey of my adolescence, I am grateful there were stories of Black heroes, scholars, mothers, fathers, leaders and more lighting a path to show me all the dimensions of my history. These stories revealed for me important things about my identity and the world around me.
It should be an undisputed fact that we need to know the history of how Black people came to this country, talk about the significant contributions Black people have made, and talk about systemic racism and how it impacts us today. Yet in 2022, there is a movement taking place to erase Black history in schools to avoid uncomfortable realities in America.
For me, this only serves as proof that we need to talk more about Black history. Because Black history is American history. And there are problems facing Black people today that our collective communities need to rally around. If we silence the stories of Black history in our education systems, we’re erasing the faces, the context, the empathy, and the humanity that we all need to embrace to get to the bottom of real problems affecting all of us.
We need Black stories to keep progress alive. Things are shifting all the time. They get better all the time, but we’re not where we need to be. I’m still saying a prayer when my husband goes to the grocery store late at night. Someday, I’ll have to have “the conversation” with my son about how to behave if he is in the presence of a police officer. There’s a freedom that others enjoy every day without knowing it.
I am describing some real issues, but I am hopeful. Because thanks in large part to advances in education and celebrations like Black History Month, more people are educated about the breadth and depth of Black history. I can talk more openly about some of the issues that impact my experience every day. I feel less isolated. And that’s another piece of what Black History month is for me. It’s a time to let more people into the conversation and feels less alone.
So as we celebrate Black History Month, we must remember to continue the conversation. And we need everyone’s participation. We are all one community, and what impacts one part of our communities impacts us all. Not just in February but year-round, we need to remember our past so that we can make the future better.