Growing up, I fondly remember this one picture that hung alongside our family photos. High on the wall, my eyes met those of famous African Americans* like Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King, Jr., Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, and Malcolm X. These influential men and women are portrayed floating in the clouds making them appear even more legendary. They were people to look up to because of their achievements and for what they’ve done for people like me.
As a child, I read about Mary McLeod Bethune and Martin Luther King Jr. A powerful image of the young Dr. King on one side of chain link fence and a white child on the other is still fresh in my memory many years later. Even as a young child, the deep sense of injustice that the authors and illustrators depicted was apparent and provoked conversations between my mom and me.
Our home was alive with Black History almost every single day during the formative years of my childhood.
In the last 10 years, I’ve begun to realize just how powerful these little nudges were. My mom sought out books, music, and even dolls representing people who looked like us. People with all different shades of brown skin. I don’t think my mother’s intention was to make what we would learn in schools and from society seem less significant, but instead to draw our attention to what was left out of the narrative.
In school, we would not learn that during slavery many slaves fought back and refused to become victims of circumstance. In her book, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria, Beverly Daniel Tatum says,
“Too often I hear from young African American students the embarrassment they have felt in school when the topic of slavery is discussed…the rebellions and resistance offered by the enslaved Africans are rarely discussed.”
We would not learn from our media how “Black” and “male” are acceptable traits, or that the way someone dresses doesn’t make them a criminal. Media coverage in the United States, often paints a bleak picture of Blacks and other people of color (check out this article by Huffington Post). Rose Hackman of the Guardian, reflects on American treatment of African American men saying,
“Black men have historically been depicted as aggressive, hypersexual and violent – to be controlled, to be exploited, to be tamed.”-the Guardian.com.
We would not learn that Black History is past, present, and future. Herein lies the danger of Black History Month. A history of an entire people is usually thought to have reached critical mass during the Civil Rights Movement. The boycotts, marches, and speeches by Blacks during the Civil Rights Movement are often romanticized like the golden age of African Americans. Have we forgotten that the men and women enslaved and brought to the United States built the nation we enjoy today? We would not learn that Black History month started as a protest, an interjection by Black people tired of having their history omitted.
Making Black History Month more meaningful requires us to be critical of the narrative that’s told day in and day out, not just in February.
Black History Month’s original design was always supposed to be more than a celebration. Carter Woodson envisioned this month to be an intentional effort to promote a different narrative about black people. “It is a political and moral project that exposes the willful ignorance about black people that shapes American history and informs our present troubles,” says Eddie Glaude Jr. TIME.com. The works of Glaude Jr., Tatum, Woodson, and Hackman all converge on one question: Who’s been writing the history?
But I have hope.
I have hope because of the lessons my mom taught me long ago remain close to my heart today. They became ever more important during my college years, after Trayvon, Michael, Tamir, Tanisha, and countless others. I have hope because it’s not too late for us to change the narrative. As youth leaders, we have a responsibility and an opportunity to encourage our youth to approach Black History with new eyes. Indeed, we must help change the narrative of Black History. Black hurt affects us all – whether you’re Black or otherwise – and leaves us in a position of extreme brokenness. Choosing to approach Black History Month anew, while challenging, is just one example of how we can all participate God’s reconciliatory work.
Author’s Note: The intention of this piece is not to discourage anyone, but rather to disrupt our current thinking to provide room for new thoughts and ideas. Like any other tradition, I believe it’s useful to ask questions and reflect. Stay tuned for a follow up piece with practical tips for approaching Black History Month with your youth.
*The term African American and Black/Black American are used interchangeably in this piece.
Jameisha Washington is a volunteer youth leader at North Decatur UMC in Decatur, GA. Jameisha has a Master’s degree in Public Administration from Georgia State University and a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from Westmont College. She currently resides in the greater Atlanta area and is an advocate for marginalized groups.