Look beyond Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X. I dare you.
Black History Month begins on Monday. This time around, I want to present a challenge to those who observe or at least appreciate Black History Month.
Forgo paying homage to the usual, sanitized representations that are pulled out of the drawer, dusted off, and briefly displayed this time of year for a few weeks.
Instead, go the entire month learning about new (to you) events and people who aren’t Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X. I dare you.
This isn’t meant to denigrate the contributions of these noteworthy figures. The thing is, we’re already acquainted with their stories. We have reduced these and other well-known individuals to compelling quotes that lack appreciation for the context that inspired the words or “spirit” of the attitude we admire. My challenge aims to broaden the horizon of this atrophied tradition.
I challenge you to parse and marinate on the struggle, achievements, ingenuity, and noteworthy efforts of black individuals, groups, and social movements not typically referenced in the narrow narratives annually prescribed to you.
“Black history” is more vast and complex than what’s commonly referred to as the “Civil Rights Era.” Delve deeper into the inexcusable evil of slavery (e.g., check out the unique perspectives featured in Runaway Slaves and When I Was a Slave). Become acquainted with the context and particulars of Black Emancipation, Black Codes, Reconstruction Era, Jim Crow, the Great Migration, the Black Cabinet, the New Negro and the Harlem Renaissance, the Scottsboro Boys, intersectionality, and more.
Take the time to truly familiarize yourself with the motivations, vexation, and self-determination behind movements like the Universal Negro Improvement Association, New Negro Alliance, The Association for the Study of African American Life and History, National Negro Congress, Women’s Political Council, Student National Coordinating Committee, Black Panther Party, Black Power, womanism, and Black Lives Matter.
I purposely left out the names of black leaders, thinkers, educators, and activists integral to all these pivotal movements and moments in time. I also didn’t mention important contributions to our culture by way of literature/writers, art/artists, music/musicians, and film/performers. The curious will pursue knowledge while the incurious will remain content with unawareness and the whitewashed propaganda they were groomed to accept.
The purpose of this celebration set forth by its originators was to motivate a more earnest study of black involvement in the making of this nation. There’s a tendency to examine the historical evolution of the United States apart from crucial developments in law, culture, and social order directly related to the black experience. Black History Month should be used as a way to expose the fact that black America’s saga is indivisible from what this country is and how it came to be.
Black history is American history.
Despite this, our story is routinely diminished, erased, or co-opted to better jive with our white-oriented culture. You want to honor or better understand the real-lived texture of this nation’s black legacy? Accept this challenge and see what you learn.
All the black people who know our layered, pained, resilient, and beautiful history is far more than Rosa Parks sitting down and Dr. King having a dream
Sincere Kirabo writes about culture, humanism and politics from an intersectional approach. He blogs at Patheos and contributes to various online media including The Humanist and Everyday Feminism. Follow him @SinKirabo