Stay with me here.
Growing up, I was usually the only black person in my class. If not the only one, then 1 of 3 or 4. I was use to a mixture of races in my immediate presence though. My family is racially diverse, and my group of friends usually are too. I never realized how lucky I was to have a pretty visibly diverse elementary school experience until now as well. Although again I was the only one of few black persons in my classes, there was a good mixture of White, European, Middle Eastern, East Asian, and Latin American kids in my class. I was really lucky.
But when Black History Month came around, I would hate it. My often white teachers would give a brief description of “my history” to the class, and the roles of teacher-student would become awkward. This description always hit the generic talking points in my history:
- Black people were slaves
- Slavery is bad
- Lincoln was great because of the Emancipation Proclamation
- (even though it was a proclamation on southern states that he didn’t have authority over at the time anyways. He also never made the emancipation legal on ‘freed’ northern states)
- (Also the irony of giving praise and recognition to a white figure during BHM never seizes to make me laugh)
- Martin Luther King Jr.’s I have a dream speech (never actually analyzing it, only reading it over and over and over again)
- Emphasizing that slavery is bad
- And maybe if I had a self proclaimed liberal teacher, a single sentence on Malcolm X activism
So if that is all my history was boiled down too, I didn’t have much insight. And of course the only thing that stuck was that black people were slaves. It’s like having people talking about you in front of your face, it’s awkward. And because of the teacher-student dynamic I was never able to stand up and add my part. I could never say ” although slavery was highly racialized in the states, black people were not the only slaves during that time. There was however laws set in place that explicit protected non black slaves from certain working and living conditions.” I could never say “ Martin Luther King Jr. faced an incredible amount of pushback especially from the Federal Government and was often under surveillance because he was a deemed a threat to national security before he found such praise after his assassination”. I could never push to have other figures celebrated during this time because I simply didn’t know about them. I was always shown images of the black community fighting and struggling to find minimal success. So I always had the burden of people almost feeling sorry for me even though that was only a single part of my history. I felt reminded of my place subliminally, that I should’t necessarily strive for more because my ancestors were slaves. Because if I did try, there were gonna be a lot of barriers to overcome. It almost made aspirations of mine seem impossible.
It wasn’t until university I was exposed to other figures and events. I never knew Madame C. J. Walker was first female millionaire in the United States. I never knew Haiti was the first country to have a Slave Rebellion in 1791 against oppression, colonization, and of course slavery (successfully) which then started the trend of revolt among other countries. I never knew about Mary Ann Shadd was the first black female publisher in North America and first female publisher in Canada. I never knew about Mary Jackson being the first black female engineer at NASA or the other women featured in the film Hidden Figures. I just never knew. And I thought that was the purpose of Black History Month. To learn more about my history, not a moment.
And now I hope that more access to information about black history will mean other black kids will have less awkward encounters with people whittling their black history into a phrase in time.That they will self educate. That a little black kid in her class will less likely feel uncomfortable during a month when she should feel informed, inspired, and empowered by these stories, not subjected to just a few points in time.That she won’t have to wait almost 18 years of her life to discover more about what she CAN be, not just what part of her past reflects. That she will have enough courage to be loud. To not hate Black History Month, but to be proud of it as I am now.
Here is a link I found almost comical, but was able to sympathize with on the topic by Youtuber SmoothieFreak