It was during a school-wide assembly to celebrate the United States’ Black History Month. I remember reciting my poem and the celebratory feeling in the room. The sense that we were united by the legacy of this wonderful man and our enlightened accomplishments as a racially diverse school community. Even then I understood that my presence onstage was meant to be evidence of that enlightenment and progress.
This is one of the many pleasant memories I had of celebrating Black History Month in elementary school. There were assemblies in the auditorium and art projects in homeroom. During these times I felt important as one of the few African American students in my classes. I was excited to learn about African American experiences and contributions, and I knew that there would likely be increased attention to my work. Surely some of my classmates (rightly) resented being singled out for their blackness, but I was perhaps a bit of a ham. I enjoyed the opportunity to shine.
It wasn’t until I was much older that I began to understand the need to acknowledge that black history--both the uplifting and the incredibly painful parts--was an integral part of the overall history of the United States. While Black History Month continues the necessary job of highlighting the contributions and experiences of African Americans in this country, it (and other specialized months) should not be seen as a substitute for striving toward a more inclusive and egalitarian national narrative.
We are part of increasingly interconnected communities. We can’t continue to draw boundaries around the contributions, experiences, and actions of groups. Our choices--and the legacies of those choices--don’t follow the boundaries of calendars or single categories of identity. Certainly this country, through centuries of protest, struggle, and growth, has made amazing strides in acknowledging and writing a more inclusive narrative of its history. This has been done in part by uncovering, amplifying, and reconstructing silenced voices and experiences.
Yet we still live in a society where issues of representation and inclusion are painfully relevant. We’ve seen this in the very need for a Black Lives Matter movement. So how do we move past the reliance on Black History Month as a catch-all for representation of the experiences, contributions, and voices of African Americans? You can stand up for black history every month of the year by thinking about things like:
Ask yourself - which books have you read this year, in school or on your own? How many of them are by black authors?
When you study American history in school, how often do you learn about the history of black people in our country? If you don’t study much about black people outside of Black History Month, can you make your next project in history class about a black leader or about a part of history like the Freedom Riders or the Selma-to-Montgomery march?
When you study history textbooks at school, who wrote the textbooks? Are any of your textbooks by black authors? How do you think that what you read in the textbook might be influenced by the experiences and identities of the authors?
How do you break the norm--in the classroom or in your own life--when you face history?