Remembering: On the Importance of Black History Month

Black history, our history, is dotted with beauty and grace, brutality and trauma, the good, the bad, the ugly. It is a tapestry woven with generational pain. Our tamer stories are about being followed in grocery stores, little anecdotes about white women clutching their purses in elevators, or a sm

Beautiful Black faces smiling.

“Mother dear, may I go downtown / Instead of out to play, / And march the streets of Birmingham / In a Freedom March today?”/ “No, baby, no, you may not go, / For the dogs are fierce and wild, / And clubs and hoses, guns and jails / Aren’t good for a little child.”/ “But, mother, I won’t be alone. / Other children will go with me, / And march the streets of Birmingham / To make our country free.”/ “No, baby, no, you may not go, / For I fear those guns will fire. / But you may go to church instead / And sing in the children’s choir.” / She has combed and brushed her night-dark hair, / And bathed rose petal sweet, / And drawn white gloves on her small brown hands, / And white shoes on her feet. / The mother smiled to know her child / Was in the sacred place, / But that smile was the last smile / To come upon her face. / For when she heard the explosion, / Her eyes grew wet and wild. / She raced through the streets of Birmingham / Calling for her child. / She clawed through bits of glass and brick, / Then lifted out a shoe. / “O, here’s the shoe my baby wore, / But, baby, where are you?”

-Dudley Randall, Ballad of Birmingham

Black history, our history, is dotted with beauty and grace, brutality and trauma, the good, the bad, the ugly. It is a tapestry woven with generational pain. Our tamer stories are about being followed in grocery stores, little anecdotes about white women clutching their purses in elevators, or a small elderly white man locking his doors. We half laugh at blonde debutantes, crossing the street to avoid our paths. Our more chilling stories end a bit differently. Batons, bruises, hanging ropes, exploded churches. They end in desperate claims about inabilities to breathe under the knees of a blue uniformed man, or shrugged shoulders and disregarded cases of missing Black women.

As Black history month ends, you will see a few sides to your community. On one side, they will ignore Black history completely. There will be unoriginal lines about how there is no white history month. They will pick apart school assemblies and Black movie marathons—disgusted at the thought of any special treatment. They will be angry at talk about trauma, slavery, segregation. Will scream themselves hoarse. “It’s different now. Times are way different! You weren’t even alive during slavery.” They will choke on their anger and insist that Tyler Perry, Barack Obama, and Beyonce are proof that progress has worked. We’re safe now, and if you say otherwise, you are the problem. This side has settled on a victim. And it’s them. They are not sad because we are dying in the streets, they are sad because we are dying on their property, and the only thing they learned in the past two years—was that destruction of property mattered more than destruction of Black lives. There is an obvious danger with this side. They refuse to remember our pain, or acknowledge the danger of being Black today, and by doing so strip us of our truth.

The other side will only talk about the trauma. They will use Black history month as a means of unburdening themselves of their white guilt. They will slather on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. quotes like sunscreen and bathe themselves in misguided attempts to atone for their ancestors’ sins. For them, Black history month, and by extension Black people, are boiled down to the characters they saw on Roots, or 12 Years a Slave, or god forbid Green Book. They are desperate for Black people to fit into neat boxes of misery and anger. They push a different kind of responsibility and obedience on the Black community. A kind where Black people must act as a shoulder to cry on while they wail about the pain, they felt watching the news before going back to Tik Tok. We exist to curb their guilt about having no other Black friends and navigate our own anxieties while they play videos of us dying in the streets. They’ve grown desensitized to our deaths, their gasps get a little smaller every time, their anger melting into a passive shake of the head, and at the first sign of questioning at their own inaction when it comes to racism in their friends, families, or businesses—they get defensive. They rely on us to act as sidekicks, cardboard cutouts if you will, before boxing us back up and placing us to the side until next February. There is a different kind of danger here. They know nothing about our joy, our genius, our layers. In only consuming what happens to us they never actually get to know us, and by doing so they strip us of our color.

But there is one more side.

There is a side that could balance the beauty of Blackness. The braids, the twists, the color of our complexion—or really, the complexity of our complexion. They will celebrate our music, our throwback movies (classics like Poetic Justice, Love & Basketball, and How Stella Got Her Groove Back) and find joy in our joy, our love, our excitement. But they will also remember Birmingham. They will remember explosions, and hoses, and trained dogs. They will look to genius and poignant works like Get Out and Fruitvale Station. They will read our poetry, our history, and they will see the exploitation and manipulation of the Black community. Black history isn’t about forgetting one side in favor of the other. It’s about our inventions, our contributions, our shared experiences, and all of the experiences in between that make us entirely different. February ends, but Black people continue to be sexualized, exploited, attacked, and ignored. Our culture continues to be stolen, our stories manipulated or erased. February ends, and Black people continue to create. Set new trends, redefine culture, language, and food. We continue to excel. We continue to fight.

Remembering our history grows more important every day. All of it. Every thread, every knot, every ripped seam. We remember the lives we’ve lost, the stories untold, the creators still waiting for their big shot. Black history month is about it all. February is over now, but Black history month continues, and as we approach the 28th, we remind ourselves that our influence stretches beyond the bounds of our individual lives. Our impact—the impact of the Black community as a while—continues well after we are gone. And so, in a way, we live forever. Maya Angelou, Dudley Randall, Prince—we still hear them now. And so, if the living doesn’t stop, neither does the remembering.