Black History Month, those are the words that come to mind when I think about February. The one time a year, we set aside the standard “white” American history to focus on the history of “black” Americans. The month when, as the only student of color in my graduating high school, I was singled out by a teacher asking, “as a black girl, what are your feelings on slavery?” As if I represented all “Black America” and could speak for the masses in my junior year.
During black history month, students are taught about the exact “ideal” historical figures such as Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK), Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and, more recently, former President Barack Obama. MLK had a dream. Rosa Parks refused to sit in the back of the bus. Harriet Tubman and her underground railroad. Douglass and his phenomenal writings. Obama was the first “black” president of the United States of America. However, much more black history is overlooked, ignored, and often erased.
Throughout my adulthood, I have heard people say, “why do we need a black history month?” I have seen tweets and Facebook posts over the years saying, “why isn’t there a white history month?” and “if white history month is racist, then so is black history month.” These questions and statements always confuse me. How can someone be so opposed to a month dedicated to black history when the history I recall learning throughout my childhood was predominately about white men?
Carter G. Woodson founded black history month, the second African American to graduate from Harvard University with a Ph.D. He believed African Americans needed to understand their history to fight segregation and disfranchisement. Woodson founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (now the Association for the Study of African American Life and History) in 1915. The association hosts annual conferences for researchers to share their findings with the public. This act started with the promotion of Negro History Week in 1926. Essentially, he picked the month of February to coincide with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. This choice aimed to show black Americans the range of influential figures, movements, and events that helped shape African Americans’ march toward freedom. In the long run, this led to the dawning of Black History Month in February 1976.
By now, I am sure you are wondering how that relates to today, how something that started as a week of education almost a century ago should still be relevant. The answer is simple, racial injustice. While many of you may not believe racial inequity is “real” or may lean into the idea that racism is only relevant when spoken of, that is not the case for many people of color in the United States of America. While people can often name the highlights of progress for black Americans, such as the civil rights movement and the voting rights act, they cannot correlate how those progressive moments fall off into the problematic state of the states today. They overlook or skip over the war on drugs with Reagan and the targeting of black communities by the police. The conception of black citizenship is tied to the idea that we all had a dream, we overcame, and then Obama was elected president.
Despite the progress made for black Americans, today, we still face injustices that many would rather sweep under the rug than step up and voice out against in protest. The common misconception that black Americans have equality runs deep in the country. Often people fail to realize that even though they as an individual may not be racist, they have an inherent bias nature that is rooted in the racism found in our nation’s history. We show it in our jokes, our quick judgments of someone based on their appearance, our opinions based on the name someone was given, and our assumptions of strangers being deserving or undeserving of punishment handed out by our justice system.
While no one can walk in the shoes of another and see things as they see them, that does not mean we cannot try to understand why they think and feel the way they do. I do not speak for black America; I do speak for myself. As someone who you would pass on the street and immediately checkmark the box as black and not white, I have experiences dating back to childhood that make me question how much my skin color means to others and how much it should mean to me. Experiences range from backhanded comments of “you’re pretty for a black girl” to being accused of kidnapping my child because they are white-passing and I am not. Even being pulled over by police for “looking suspicious” in my predominately white neighborhood in which I resided.
Walking out of the house wondering if today is the day I will be profiled is my life. Every wondering look my direction. Every time someone clutches their purse a little tighter when I come near. Every time someone changes their direction the moment they see me walk toward them. These little signs make me question whether I should have left the house. What is it about me that made them react in that manner? They do not even know me. It cannot always be a coincidence.
Then I am reminded of “why me” when I turn on the tv. Movies portray black America as thugs, hoodlums, gangbangers, drug dealers, and addicts. The music videos show black America glorifying thug life and living for the streets, and the lyrics match. Another black man on display is being murdered for the world to see by the people meant to protect us. The people guilty of ensuring this is plastered everywhere to portray black America in such a negative light, never once on display for being guilty of the painting they created of black America.
I can never erase the unconscious racism that people hold onto today. I cannot make a person understand how it feels to see their unconscious reactions to seeing me, a black person, coming their way. I can only pretend it does not phase me and keep my head high, pretending their glares are not burning holes through my armor. I can only continue to be authentically me and hope that they can get past the unconscious racism and realize that I am nothing like their subconscious has pre-determined I will be.
While you may not personally experience racism, which I would never wish upon you, that does not mean it does not exist. Racism is built into the cake of our nation. The country was built on the backs of enslaved Africans. The slave patrol (the origins of modern-day police) was created to capture them when they would run away. Even if they had their freedom papers, they were not safe from the slave patrol. While the civil war granted many their freedoms, it did not make them equals.
How little black Americans have been considered equal through the Jim Crow era was obvious. The Jim Crow era legalized racial segregation with the intent to marginalize black Americans by denying them the right to vote, hold jobs, and even get an education. During the Jim Crow era, black Americans were the subjects of lynchings and cruel experiments and often faced arrest, fines, jail sentences, violence, and death. The legal system was loaded with former Confederate soldiers working as police and judges, making it difficult for black Americans to win court cases and ensuring they became the main population of prisoners in labor camps. Black prisoners typically received longer sentences than their white equals.
In 1919, between April and November, there was the Red Summer. As lynchings increased, so did race riots. There were approximately 25 race riots and instances of mob violence—a total of 97 lynchings recorded. There was even a three-day-long massacre in Elaine, Arkansas. While the Ku Klux Klan had been mostly shut down after the civil war, they had a rebirth during this time and carried out lynchings throughout the south.
Roughly two years after the Red Summer would be the Tulsa Race Massacre. Greenwood was a predominately black neighborhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma, thriving and flourishing. Greenwood was often called Black Wall Street. On May 31st, what would be an 18-hour-long bloodshed occurred when a white mob attacked Greenwood residents, homes, and businesses. Members of the mob were even some of whom were deputized and given weapons by city officials. Regardless of their deputized status, they committed numerous acts of violence against black people.
Fast forward past Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act. While much has changed on paper, very little has changed in the daily lives of black America. Nixon and Reagan specifically designed anti-black policies. As seen in the 90s with Rodney King and more recently with George Floyd, alongside countless others, black Americans are still targeted by police.
How do we put an end to racism? We speak up. We do not be complicit, as our silence equals compliance. We set our feelings aside and try to understand with intent when someone yells racism, and we do not see why they feel that way. We have difficult conversations. We take steps to acknowledge and remove our inherent biases, no matter how big or small. We listen. Most of all, we listen. In the words of Epictetus, the Greek philosopher, “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.