“We’re more than a people who come from slavery.”In my home growing up, every day was Black History Month. The pearl white walls were decorated with iconic black art. Bookcases shelved the words of Bebe Moore Campbell and Malcolm X and Alice Walker and Terry McMillan. As young as eight I was exposed to keynote speeches by scholar Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, poet Nikki Giovanni, and astronaut Dr. Mae Jemison. All of the college students my mother mentored were black women. Her black friends were educators and nurses and directors. My mother and her three friends founded the first all-black Girl Scouts troop in the city. Black excellence was the norm — February just meant we turned it up a notch.
Everybody — especially those who aren’t black — didn’t grow up with that kind of celebration of blackness. Black history in public schools is usually only taught during Black History Month. Even at the best of schools black history is often reduced to three parts: slavery, a watered down version of the Civil Rights Movement and, if you’re lucky, a handful of black inventors. The only great black heroes you learn about is the sanitized story of Dr. Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks. Forget about learning the important contributions of people like Fannie Lou Hamer, Sojourner Truth, W.E.B. Dubois, or Eldridge Cleaver.
It bothered me that in high school Harper Lee, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Mark Twain were required reading but Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, and Octavia Butler weren’t. Because black history is American history it should be part of the curriculum. By the time I enrolled in grad school I was convinced Black History Month was a distraction from the issues still plaguing blacks in America. I was loud and wrong.
The 24-year-old me wrote an op-ed ripe with respectability politics on how we needed to do more to dismantle oppressive systems. I was frustrated as the only black woman in my classes and one of the only ones in the university’s newsroom. I resented the university using Black History Month to hold black-focused panels and events that were otherwise nonexistent. Thinking back on that op-ed I cringe. Instead of writing how we were all distracted by Black History Month (which in hindsight is a ridiculous notion) I should have written about how important it is to honor black history not only in February but all year long. Now I understand that that celebration is never a distraction, but rather a necessary act of self-love.
What my 24-year-old self really wanted to express was that BHM is not just a time to parade around how far blacks have come, nor is it a time to shame our community for its perceived problems with the ill trotted out “Look what your people did under much dire circumstances.” It’s not about throwing shade on how BHM falls on the shortest month of the year (although it is a little funny). It’s not even about rebutting folks like Clueless star Stacey Dash who foolishly think we should do away with it altogether.
Black History Month at its best encompasses joy and activism and representation. It’s a time to celebrate black arts and literature and black businesses. It’s about doing actual work that will make the world better for the little girls and boys coming behind us. It’s about radical self-love for ourselves and our people. Black History Month should challenge us to immerse ourselves in the richness of black culture.
While I wholeheartedly believe BHM is for us and belongs to us, I’d hope that non-blacks see it as an opportunity to challenge themselves because we all have a long way to go towards ensuring equality for all. Ideally that would look like non-black parents encouraging their children to read books by black authors, or attending black museums or cultural centers to really soak up all the history beyond slavery. It would definitely include corporations reflecting on how few blacks they have employed and committing themselves to change. In a perfect world, BHM would inspire everyone toward action — big and small.
My idea of why Black History Month matters is likely not the same as what historian Carter G. Woodson and minister Jesse E. Moorland had in mind when they founded it in 1926. And that’s OK. The beauty in Black History Month is we can all celebrate in different ways that are meaningful to us as individuals.
Woodson and Moorland first founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History in 1915. It was an organization committed to promoting the achievements of black Americans and those of African descent. It wasn’t until 1926 that they sponsored Negro History Week, choosing the second week in February to coincide with the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. The week sparked nationwide celebrations of blacks history through panels, lectures, community organizations, and history clubs. Mayors began to recognize Negro History Week in the years following, but it wasn’t until president Gerald R. Ford that Black History Month was officially recognized in 1976. He called on the public to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”
Much has changed since 1976 while much has stayed the same. During the MLK NOW event at the historic Riverside Church in New York City, celebs including Chris Rock, Tessa Thompson, Michael B. Jordan, and more delivered speeches by historic black figures from the ’60s and ’70s in honor of MLK Day. It was eerie how relevant those words are today.
Black people are more than a people who come from slavery. We have more than one great hero. We have been visionaries. Scientists. Astronauts. Inventors. President of the United States of America. And everything else under the sun. That history is for everybody to know.
This year it’s my hope that Black History Month sparks a fierce dedication for us all to do more to honor black history. I hope we all recognize the sacrifices blacks have made to make this a better place that Americans call home. And once February is over I hope we hold on to how powerful Black History Month is and carry that joy, that knowledge, that spirit, for the rest of the year. Source: Teen Vogue, This Is Why We Still Need Black History Month by Bené Viera, February 1, 2016
Bené Viera is a passionate multimedia journalist, writer and blogger.
Her byline has appeared on Teen Vogue.com, VH1.com, Jezebel.com, ESSENCE, VIBE, Fusion.net, CentricTV.com, xoJane.com, HuffingtonPost.com, TheRoot.com, thegrio.com, Juicy magazine and others. As a reporter, Bené has covered pop culture, entertainment, music, gender and race. She served as a staff writer for VH1 and Centric, respectively. She has interviewed Diahann Carroll, Jessie Ware, Shonda Rhimes, Ron Isley, Nas, Kerry Washington, Spike Lee, Viola Davis, Brandy, J. Cole, Reverend Al Sharpton, Anita Hill, Tracy Martin (Trayvon Martin’s father), just to name a few. Most recently, Bené wrote “The House That Shonda Built” cover story for ESSENCE magazine’s October 2015 issue. It was the first time in the magazine’s 45 year history to release six covers for one issue. She also penned three cover stories for the magazine’s #BlackGirlMagic February 2016 issue. Bené is committed to social justice, race issues and telling nuanced stories about women.
Bené earned her Bachelor’s of Arts in English from Tennessee State University and her Master’s of Arts in Journalism from Indiana University. She is a proud member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. She currently resides in BK.
We made it!! A new post for every day in February in recognition of Black History Month. This is our last post for Black History Month 2017. Thanks for your support!