In retrospect, my introduction to Black History Month was problematic, to say the least.
Picture this: A kind, older, white teacher tells a room full of second-graders that February is Black History Month, and today we’d be learning about a woman named Rosa Parks. My 8-year-old self is beyond hyped because I’m not yet disillusioned by the academic experience, but also because I had very little exposure to Black history at that point.
But unfortunately, I wouldn’t be getting the type of exposure I deserved. My teacher, gazing at a sea of non-Black faces looked me in the eye and thought, “We’d better have this little Black girl reenact Rosa Park’s iconic refusal. She’s only heard of Rosa Parks just now, but let’s sit our little Black child at the front of the class and ask her to give up her seat. She’ll say ‘No,’ and then these children will definitely understand the adversity and achievements of Black people in history.”
So I sat in front of my fellow students and became Rosa Parks, uncomfortable but too young to understand why. I didn’t stop to think that in a city that’s 2.5 percent Black, I was perhaps one of four Black kids in our school. I’d weathered enough people’s attempts to touch my hair and odd comments about my skin, but at that moment my “otherness” was fully on display. I was an exhibit. In the name of Black history, my Blackness was not celebrated, it was tokenized.
My teacher was a nice enough lady in general, and honestly I liked her, but what was she thinking? I guess it’s a good thing I was there that day, because apparently her whole lesson plan revolved around having a Black girl to play Rosa Parks. Without me, would those kids have learned any Black history at all?
My introduction to Black History Month was poorly handled, but my experience reminds me why we celebrate this month. It is clear my teacher obviously needed an opportunity to help her understand and appreciate Blackness, however, I needed it too. So did every student who saw my Blackness on display that day.
In places where Black people are few and far between, Black History Month is symbolic; it represents the fact that we’re not so alone in the world. It shows us that we have history, culture and lives worth remembering and celebrating. It teaches us that boundaries can be broken. As a little girl, I had few, if any, Black role models. Not because Black people have never left legacies worth following, but those legacies were often hidden from me. Now, the more I learn of Black history, the more I realize how many great leaders have paved the way for me to succeed. It is the knowledge of Black history which can inspire bright Black futures.
Places where Black people are present and where Black populations are strong, Black History Month is equally integral. Because Blackness has no single definition, Black communities across America benefit from focusing on our diverse and non-submissive history, which is long, vibrant and complex. There always seems to be something new to learn or celebrate.
Non-Black people, who sometimes disregard and underestimate us, or who don’t realize how much we’ve contributed to this world, also need Black History Month. They need it because Black history is American history. They need it because the shadow that looms over the accomplishments of brilliant Black artists, activists, and intellectuals must be lifted. They need it because it counters the stereotypes that we all know only divide and pain both communities.
So not only do we all need Black History Month, but we need it done right. I’ve often heard people say that Black history should be celebrated all year long, and I agree wholeheartedly. But the fact is we’ve only got one month set aside for us, so if we’re going to do it up, we better do it well.
We need to be taught that Black history has depth. It did not start and end with slavery, although it is an essential part of our narrative. We need to see the diversity of our history, which includes contributions from women, LGBTQIA+ people, diasporic communities, and countless other valuable stories from unique Black individuals.
Black History Month is just important right now as it has ever been. To put it in the simplest of terms, our current political climate is less than ideal for non-white Americans. To even remind people that “Black Lives Matter” is met with contempt by some. So let Black History Month be a form of glorious protest. Teach Black history in every school so no one can ever forget how much we matter. Because we do.
So to educators teaching Black history this month: make it count. (Do not display your Black girls at the front of the class. That is not okay. There’s a better way to teach people about Rosa Parks, I promise you.)
To non-Black people: listen, learn, and respect us please.
And to other Black people: This month is for you. Never doubt that you matter.