Why I Care About Black History Month Like Never Before

Photo by Oladimeji Odunsi on Unsplash

On the final day of February 2020, I posted on social media, speaking to why Black History Month always came and went without much fanfare for me. Blackness and history remain on my mind year-round, so this month never seemed like such a big deal.

That’s no longer the case this year. Here are three reasons why.

On May 25, 2020, the murder of George Floyd incited a national, racial reckoning; its imprints are all over this year’s Black History Month. However, I didn’t wait until February to delve into history. With our racial reckoning heightening the intense debate over systemic racism’s existence in America, I decided to utilize history as a weapon in this rhetorical battle.

Last year, on Juneteenth, I released an anti-racism Ebook/resource guide. The first section of this three-part guide highlights the history that exposes the legacy of slavery and racism’s permeation throughout America’s culture and institutions into the present day.

Some of the most poignant lessons from this history lesson were:

  • Government policies intentionally created ghettos; it’s no accident that Blacks are overrepresented in poverty-stricken inner-cities.
  • Decades after legal segregation ended, America’s neighborhoods and schools still exhibit striking amounts of racial segregation because government policies facilitate it.
  • Mass incarceration is the most prominent example of the legacy of slavery. It’s slavery’s literal grandchild. (Slavery >> Black Codes/Convict-leasing/Jim Crow >> War on Drugs/Mass Incarceration/Prison Industrial Complex)
  • Institutional racism mutates like a virus, never disappearing, only becoming watered down and insidious.
  • Whenever Blacks experience significant political progress, there is always a white backlash. (The rise in voter suppression tactics, white nationalism, and Donald Trump as a response to Barack Obama’s election being the most recent example)
  • It’s no coincidence that the War on Drugs (a failed war) directly followed the Civil Rights era. Furthermore, this “war” disproportionately affects people of color even though drug use rates among all races are nearly equal.

Recently I read a Facebook status of an individual who claimed they were so confused by the rise of “Black Lives Matter.” According to this person, they had no idea where this movement came from. My gut-punch reaction was my soul screaming: “PICK UP A HISTORY BOOK IF YOU WANT THE ANSWER!”

People wouldn’t be so confused about why race is always part of the discussion when a white officer kills an unarmed Black person if they understand this thing called historical context.

History isn’t in the past: it’s alive in the world around us.

Black History Month helps proliferate this truism.

Black History Month is a perfect reminder of the necessity and power of representation. The other day I went to play tennis with a white friend, and a conversation about hair cuts brought this into focus.

I was reminded how, as a five-year-old, I thought something was wrong with me when I first realized my hair was different from white people.

I remember I only saw white people get haircuts on television/movies. So the first time I got my hair cut, I thought something was wrong with me when hair clippers were used on me instead of scissors — like all the white people I was used to watching.

This realization, while preparing to play tennis, made me think about Black representation in the sport. I thought about the OG Black tennis player, Arthur Ashe. Ashe paved the way for the Williams sisters; paved the way for someone like Naomi Osaka. All these athletes have a powerful impact on individuals through their representation.

I remembered how some people would look at me funny or respond in a mocking way when they found out I play tennis. I remembered how bringing up the Williams sisters (since most people didn’t know Arthur Ashe) was always my go-to. I’m just now realizing it was a tactic to validate my belonging and “normality” as a Black tennis player.

The representation of these Black tennis players allowed me, and other Black people, to see ourselves reflected in society.

Their representation influences us to feel comfortable and accepted for existing as we are, rather than feel like we’re abnormal because we don’t see other people like us.

Black History Month is a powerful reminder that the stories of pioneers like Arthur Ashe, Katherine Johnson, Bessie Coleman creates a representation that still has an impact today.

I started this article by discussing how we need to look at how the past’s ugly elements exist today. Moreover, we should use history as a vessel to understand this ugliness. Nevertheless, we need to take control of our history by showing that it is three-dimensional.

I recently interviewed a man named Edwin Bancroft Henderson III, which brought this to light. Henderson is the grandson of civil rights activist and Naismith Basketball Hall-of-Fame inductee EB Henderson. He is also the founder and president of the Tinner Hill Heritage Foundation. This nonprofit preserves and promotes Black history in Church Falls, Virginia, through a museum and events.

His motivation for and challenges with founding this organization underscore the point I seek to make.

Henderson found motivation for promoting Black history through the Eurocentric (in other words, white-washed) lens in which schools taught him history. And he saw challenges from white citizens who thought the idea of delving into Black history was depressing.

He had to reframe our narrative.

Reframing history through our perspective shows that it’s so much more than pain and ugliness. Amid challenges and warts, Black history is full of a story of triumph and beauty. Amid all the pain…still we rise. And it’s through people like Henderson, who highlight our stories’ beauty, that Blacks have the encouragement to continue rising above all the bullshit that’s shoved in our face.

My reverence for Black History Month has transformed through a renewed understanding of history’s power: the power to provide answers, the power to point us toward solutions, the power to uplift, the power to propel us into a future that is more beautiful than the past.

Just a man living with a wild notion that I can be the change I wish to see in this world. See my website to follow my journey as I do this. Johnbroadway.me

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