At the beginning of every year, African Americans all around the country prepare for February with Black History Month. We become excited for a time to celebrate us in a way that, in this country, isn’t seen very often or, at least, not as often as our white counterparts. We teach our kids about the brilliance of Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X, Fredrick Douglas, and so many more. We help our sons, daughters, nieces, and nephews do book reports for class so they can talk about the joy and spirit of the African soul.
For me, as a young black kid, it was always a month of pride. It was a month that said, “Look at what we can do. Look at how powerful your people are regardless of adversity.” It became a time where I felt like we were proving to “others” that we were great. Accept our greatness. Then, the month would be over and all that pride would become silent again. Not necessarily disappear — but not as salient as it was.
As I’ve gotten older, that sense of pride that I feel so strongly in the month of February I now feel all the time because I'm seeing a shift in how our history is being told. I see these black women and men breaking barriers and being the first African American to do incredible things. With hashtags like #BlackGirlMagic and #BlackBoyJoy, social media won't let me forget that we are amazing. My young nieces and nephews are growing up in a world where this is commonplace. And I think that's awesome.
As for me, I started to be vocally and unapologetically proud of my people and myself later because I was learning that our history didn’t start at slavery or the civil rights movement — and it didn’t end after segregation. Had I been taught this early on, year round, I may have moved through the world a little differently.
Now, before we get into the “But civil rights and slavery are important pieces of information and history that we need to learn,” I want to be preemptive and say, yes it is. When I was young, if someone asked me, “Why are you proud to be black? Where does that strength and pride come from?” I would probably say, with my 10-year-old innocence, “Well, Martin Luther King Jr. is an example of how we fought back regardless of the risks and we can do it without killing or harming others. That takes strength and I am proud of that strength” — or anything along those lines. I wouldn’t have necessarily been wrong. However, starting our history there or at slavery just sounds like we’re amazing because our oppressors forced us to be. That is simply incorrect. Yet, that’s how it’s always been taught.
It wasn’t until I made it to college — yes, college — that I started venturing out on my own. I started to discover the many other people and other things that made us great but had nothing to do with anybody else but ourselves. Now, of course there are always certain levels of adversity when you’re black and just trying to make in this world. But I think there’s a difference in teaching our kids that our strength is a response to someone else’s discrimination and teaching them that our strength is something that we conjured up on our own.
For example, when I was 20 years old, I sat in my best friend’s living room and cried as I watched the first black president be sworn into office. I felt weak but sturdy. I felt energized yet drained. I felt scared but proud and brave. Then I thought, why do I feel these things? It was because as a kid, I was taught that black excellence came at a price and the catalyst for that excellence was white oppression. Then I thought, Obama didn’t run this race to prove to white people that he could do it or to force white people to give him something that was denied for so long. He did it because he was great on his own. That was one of my first tastes of excellence that depended only on a black man’s willingness to be great and not as an answer to someone else’s power.
I don’t want to invalidate any of the great works that leaders like Harriet Tubman to Fredrick Douglas to MLK Jr. and even Kaepernick did and are doing for our community. I think those things need to continue to be taught as well. We need to keep them visible not only in February but also year round. However, little black boy me would have loved to learn about Ira Aldridge, an African-British actor and playwright who became wildly successful portraying Othello. And I love that my nieces can look at Ava Roberts, the youngest African-American female doctor.
I want them to know that greatness can come through their own volition. It doesn’t always have to be an answer to the oppressor. They don’t have to wait for permission to show their greatness. They can just be. I’m proud of that and I love that I can now see that represented and manifesting in so many ways across the world now. Of course, it’s all because of the backs that we had to stand on but it’s wonderful to see the fruits of what our ancestors were fighting for and also understand that long before Amistad, we were great kings, queens, princes, and princesses. That’s the history that was omitted from my teachings but I know it now and generations after me will know it too. Just like 20-year-old me, they can look at people like Obama and know that greatness doesn’t always have to manifest from oppressive, racial pain.