To mark Black History month, we asked three racial justice advocates to reflect on what it means to commemorate and celebrate black history in a moment when racial justice is at the center of the national conversation.
In a recent piece for The New York Times, Isabel Wilkerson, author of the powerful, essential book The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, weighed in on a version of this question, drawing a heartbreaking parallel between Emmett Till and Tamir Rice, two “sons of the great migration” who have become “tragic symbols of the search for black freedom in this country.”
“The country seems caught in a cycle. We leap forward only to slip back,” Wilkerson writes, quoting Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative: “We have not made anywhere near the progress we think we have,” he said. “It’s as if we’re at halftime, and we started cheering as if we won the game.’”
Hank Willis Thomas: “All lives have the potential to be black lives”
I am always proud to celebrate the triumphs, challenges, and legacies of everyday African Americans who have made an extraordinary impact on our society through their actions or struggles against incredible odds. So, Black History Month is every month to me. I think it is equally important to study and draw historical and ethical connections to global struggles, and to learn about past and present movements in Africa, South America, the Islands, Australia, Asia, and Europe. Inequality in the U.S. is no less severe than anywhere else.
If you look closely enough, you can see that black is not a skin color, but a metaphor. My skin is brown, but in a U.S. context I identify as “black.” In a global context I identify as human. It has become evident to me that depending on the political, cultural, or economic context, all lives have the potential to be black lives. James Baldwin put it best when he said, “A person is more important than anything else…and that’s the bottom line."
Hank Willis Thomas is a visual artist whose work grapples with identity, history, and popular culture.
LaShawn Jefferson: Black History Month has become background noise
Black History Month is every month—because black lives matter 365 days a year (366 days in 2016!).
Black History Month has lost much of its original appeal since 1926, when it began as Negro History Week. Negro History Week was meant to counter widespread denigration of blacks by acknowledging black accomplishment, contribution, and excellence. In 1976, the week was expanded to Black History Month, and is now one in a long line of increasingly anodyne “heritage” (or what I call “minority-appreciation”) months, including National Hispanic Heritage Month (mid-September to mid-October), Native American Heritage Month (November), Women’s History Month (March), Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month (May), and Gay and Lesbian Pride Month (June).
Whatever its original intent, Black History Month has morphed into something present but forgettable, like background noise. It is not at all the full-blown, acquisitive consumer experience that anchors many U.S. holidays. But I always know when Black History Month is approaching, as I see more commercials on television and advertisements in print media targeting black consumers and subtly urging them to go out and buy. (I always wonder: Where are all those black models the rest of the year?) There is also a smattering of ads and public service announcements looking back generations to celebrate black (typically male) achievement: We see Martin Luther King, Jr., Fredrick Douglass, Jesse Owens, and W.E. B. Dubois, but rarely black female excellence: Sojourner Truth, Idea B. Wells, Harriet Tubman, Shirley Chisholm, or Marian Anderson.
In the era of #BlackLivesMatter, maybe we can animate Black History Month, turning it into something meaningful. As a nation, we could decide to spend the month learning and teaching, working to creating the just and equitable life black people deserve—not just reveling in past glories. We could spend the month planning and collaborating to reinvest (economically and otherwise) in sustainable black communities, disrupt the cradle to prison pipeline that leads to the incarceration of so many black women and men, and break the corporate chokehold on governance that obstructs black people’s full participation.
We could work to create dignified jobs with fair pay; call out the seesaw of appropriation, denigration and erasure of some forms of black culture; and root out patriarchy (or is that only during Women’s History Month?) and the denigration and stereotyping of black women. We could advocate to increase state accountability and responsiveness to the needs of black people, and fix our public schools, because every child deserve a high-quality education and safety.
In the era of #BlackLivesMatter, we are required, duty- and ancestor-bound, to make Black History Month actually count for something. And that means working toward progress and justice every month and every day of the year.
LaShawn Jefferson is a Ford Foundation program officer in Gender, Racial and Ethnic Justice.
Brook Kelly-Green: Let’s celebrate black lives and fight HIV/AIDS
Black History Month allows us a moment to reflect on the twin realities of black life in America: celebrating black achievement and genius, and reckoning with the destruction that structural racism, sexism, and criminalization have wreaked on our communities.
This month, nothing represented the complexity of the black American experience better than the surprise release of Beyoncé’s video for her song “Formation.” The video celebrates black women’s power to fully express themselves, own their sexuality, thrive economically, and work in solidarity with each other and their larger communities to defeat violence and other man-made disasters. With vocal cameos from New Orleans’ most famous Sissy Bounce artists, the video swiftly took over the pop culture news cycle. Conversation online was buzzing with discussion of black women’s economic independence, how the tables turn when these women determine how to harness and express their own sexuality, and the increasing prominence of the Movement for Black Lives.
“Formation” is set in the U.S. South—New Orleans, to be exact. That city is not a major media market or a bastion of progressive law and policy. But it is a place of deep cultural significance and culture-making for black and white people alike, and increasingly, for people from all over the world. The southern U.S. is a region filled with hope, creativity, and potential for those working to reduce inequality and discrimination. But Southern states are also the epicenter of deep and persistent inequality for black people, including the HIV/AIDS epidemic that thrives on the disempowerment of women, ostracism of the LGBT community, criminalization, economic disempowerment and disinvestment in safety nets. Here, the HIV/AIDS rates among black women and black gay men are stunningly high. In fact, it is where these groups have the highest death rates of anywhere in the country.
HIV/AIDS is a preventable disease, and one that can be well-managed with proper access to timely, affordable, quality medical care. And so the disproportionately high rates of HIV/AIDS in the U.S. South, paired with dismal health outcomes for black people in the region more generally, qualify as man-made disasters.
Thankfully, a host of organizations—including the Southern HIV/AIDS Strategy Initiative, AIDS Alabama, Women with a Vision, SisterLove Inc., The Positive Women’s Network – USA, the Counter Narrative Project, and Human Rights Watch’s health and human rights division—are getting in formation and pursuing bold new ways of tackling the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the South. By showing that all black lives have value, they honor not just the black community’s vital history, but its bright and essential future. To see some of what that looks like, check out #BlackFutureMonth on Twitter.
Brook Kelly-Green is a Ford Foundation program officer in Gender, Racial, and Ethnic Justice.