Let me start by saying that I have Attention Deficit Disorder. It’s hard for me retain anything at all without a lot of repetition. Unless I’m continually reminded of something, I inevitably forget it. It’s for this reason that I have come to value Black History Month on a personal level. Totally by accident, it provides for my disability. But, as is often the case, my disability has revealed to me something invaluable: it’s vitally important for non-black people to join in the annual exploration of black histories.
Many of us who are non-black have fallen into thinking that black history is relevant only to African Americans and school kids. But that’s not true at all, and I think it underestimates the power of black histories to make change. By participating in recognizing black history, non-black people can aid in dismantling white supremacy, healing the black community, and cultivating a more equitable society for all.
“We live in a society of an imposed forgetfulness, a society that depends on public amnesia.” – Angela Davis
It’s easy for those of us who are racially privileged (to whatever degree) to overlook the systemic nature of anti-black racism when we don’t know our history. Skewed narratives give us a fragmented view of our society that relegates institutionalized racial oppression to the realm of the distant past. But in fact, some of the most appalling and blatant instances of historic anti-blackness happened in the U.S. happened within the past fifty years: the Tuskegee syphilis experiment lasted until 1972; the confirmed KKK lynching of Michael Donald was in 1981; Philadelphia police bombed and entire black neighborhood in 1985; and the 13th Amendment was not ratified in all fifty states until 1995.
These histories demonstrate that severe systemic racism has remained intact continuously from the time of segregation until today. Such factual knowledge dismantles the amnesia that allows white supremacy to persist. It lays bare fallacies such as that racial controversies in the more recent history are disconnected from and less legitimate than the controversies of the long past. By prompting remembrance over forgetting, Black History Month helps us unravel the ignorance that feeds white supremacy in the present day and must extend itself beyond just one month.
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“When black people get free, everybody gets free.” – Black Lives Matter co-originator, Alicia Garza
The historic and contemporary oppression of people of African descent has repercussions that reach into everyone’s lives. Without black histories, black liberation is all but unattainable, and without black liberation there can be no end to patriarchy, classism, ableism, or any other form of body terrorism. Celebrating black history invites allyship by revealing common histories of marginalization. Racism has an intersectional relationship with all other forms of oppression. Whether your focus is on disability justice or gender inequity, queer issues or environmentalism, public health or neoimperialism, black liberation matters for you, and black history matters for society. Taking advantage of the annual circulation of radical black literature, including the pioneering works of intersectionalism, is part of what has taught me these things.
I’ve also learned is that being a good ally is like being a good friend.
When your friend is upset and angry, you listen to them. When your friend needs to talk about the traumatic experiences of their past, you validate their feelings and support their exploration. When they are struggling to heal, you offer what resources you can spare. People of African descent are traumatized and continue to be severely abused. Denouncing and organizing against this abuse is part of our obligation; the other part is the gentler side of caring. It’s the only way to build an empathetic relationship in which we truly stand together.
“All history is current; all injustice continues on some level, somewhere in the world.” – Alice Walker
Recognizing black history invites us to see cyclical patterns of history more plainly. Ignorance of the historic system of racism has allowed it to persist, adapt, and resurface. It permits the view that racism is a matter of personal hatred, while obscuring the fact that in a hundred years or more the substantive conditions of black life have barely changed. Black people are still over criminalized, still barred from voting, still murdered at extraordinary rates. Plantation slavery is still intact in the American South, and the U.S. has gone on to uncritically export that same economic system all over the world.
There are more slaves in the world in 2016 than there were at the height of the transatlantic slave trade. This is an indication that our society lacks sufficient commitment to uncovering and strengthening honest accounts of ourselves and our leaders. Collectively we forget that phenomena such as slavery were not incidental to our society – they were fundamental to it. We forget that the functional structure of our society has never undergone drastic retooling. We forget that this is foundation of our social and economic system today. Great and kind people have accepted a status quo of injustice before. Each of us must always be open to the possibility that we are among those people, and we must explore that contradiction actively over time.
“Diversifying our reductionist understanding of black life, history, and leadership enriches all our lives, and is key to resolving the imbalance in how we value blackness.” – bell hooks
Misconceptions among non-black people about black history are deeply destructive to contemporary discussions of racism and blackness. Factually incorrect narratives of the Civil Rights Movement, for instance, have a profound influence on public reception of today’s pro-black activists. When non-black people misconstrue Martin Luther King, Jr.’s anti-capitalist beliefs and message of nonviolence, we pigeonhole black communities with respectability politics. When we misrepresent the purpose and actions of the Black Panthers, we paint contemporary black activists as potential terrorists. When we downplay the instrumental roles of black women in Civil Rights activism we enable sexist attitudes toward black women’s politics. And when we minimize the fact that the FBI’s illegal COINTELPRO operation intentionally terrorized, sabotaged, and dismantled the Civil Rights Movement, we tacitly condone the baseless surveillance of Black Lives Matter activists in our age.
False narratives not only disrupt the on-going work of anti-racist organizing, they demean the legitimacy of black experience. The work of today’s black activists is built on the collective experience of their community, and when we question their methods we invalidate their assessments of their own histories. Criticizing the leadership structure of the Black Lives Matter movement, for example, is degrading to the fact that centralizing leadership has been incredibly dangerous in the past. By resolving this discrepancy, Black History Month boosts much-needed respect for black power and authority. It also helps convey the realities of intergenerational trauma, and the importance of continuity in black communities. We devalue the lives, cultures, and voices of black people, when we discredit and oversimplify their voices.
“Black people are more than what happened to us.” – official Black Lives Matter statement, 2016
Black histories are beautiful, promising, and exciting! They contain some of the greatest accomplishments of human history, many of which are frequently downplayed and misattributed. Narratives that paint black communities as destitute and hopeless are themselves very harmful, not to mention false. We need to undo those falsehoods as desperately as all the others. This time prompts us to consider the wealth of the black community today, and the positive trajectory of its future.
In acknowledgement of the profound creativity and leadership potential of the black community, a new iteration of Black History Month is being actualized: Black Futures Month. This re-imagination, catalyzed by Black Lives Matter, is also something for non-black people to engage in. The vibrancy of the black community diaspora is another thing that we are constantly forgetting. Orienting ourselves to see black futures positively, instead of as fraught with problems, helps us remove ourselves as obstacles to those futures. We can support black people’s visions for their futures by sponsoring black artists, celebrating black youth, and contributing to black community spaces.
Whatever the angle, building a non-black culture of celebrating black history is of the utmost importance. Ignorance of these histories causes numerous problems throughout contemporary society, while educating one another supports the black community and boosts social cohesion for everyone. Black History Month is a chance to inform ourselves and one another, to unabashedly propagate black histories, and to build a habit of doing so beyond February.
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[Feature Image by The All-Nite Images: A photo of dark skinned man with short hair standing in a group of people. He is holding a sign that says “Black Lives Matter”. Other photo by Miguel Ángel Yuste de Paz.]