The significance of Black History Month 2023 varies widely across the United States. To make real progress on our deep racial divides, we all need to pay attention to Black History all year long. The opportunities to do so abound. I have come to this point of view slowly over many years. Not long ago I looked at Black History Month participation as a box to check off out of obligation and perhaps guilt. It was one more thing to do.
Over time, however, Black History Month and learning about the Black experience has had a deeper impact on me. My heart has opened to the beauty and pain of the Black experience – the accomplishments despite overwhelming odds, the persistent courage and resilience against unrelenting racism, and the creativity that led to world-changing contributions to art, music, economic development, human services, health care and many other fields.
Before sharing some of my moving experiences from Black History Month 2023 and why these experiences reinforce my desire to continue to look for ways to learn about Black History throughout the year, let me address the question of why I think Black History is important to and available to all of us.
Twice in our nation’s history, our legacy of slavery and intentional Black oppression by white people has threatened the existence of our nation. A trip to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC recently reinforced this point. Lincoln came to his opposition of slavery pragmatically. It was tearing the nation apart and he would do whatever it took to preserve the union.
Similarly, today we are still fighting this war over equality. As I observed in my Feb. 21 post, there is a direct connection between a desire to love and developing an appreciation of Black History. Our current struggle intensifies as we learn more about structural racism and its impact on equality, and as we become more aware of the history of a white supremacist culture that oppresses Black, Indigenous and other People of Color (BIPOC).
If we seek to co-create a more perfect union where there is freedom and justice for all, then it makes sense to want to learn about the biggest barrier to freedom and justice as well as the many other manifestations of injustice in our nation.
Once there is a will to be open to learning and celebrating Black history, there is no limit to the opportunities. Here are some I became aware of last month.
Broadly available media – Many major media outlets presented a Black History curriculum. Newspapers over time and today highlighted both Black history and celebrated Black leaders and inventors, well-known and less well-known. TV networks (PBS, CNN, MSNBC, and others) all had specials and LinkedIn, Amazon Prime and other streaming accounts had a host of Black History viewing opportunities.
Local programs – In my community and many others, library systems, local governments, colleges and universities and community organizations hosted events. Here in Greenbelt, a highlight for me was a Sunday afternoon cultural program sponsored by our local Greenbelt Black History and Culture Committee. The program included a soloist singing Lift Every Voice and Sing by James Weldon Johnson, a children’s dance with drumming by a recreation center youth group, a high school jazz quartet and a poetry reading by a gay Black poet from the community.
The most powerful and moving moments for me in this program was the poetry reading by Saine Cessay, the former Youth Poet Laureate of our county. Saine read both her own poetry and excerpts from the poetry of renowned Black poet Lucille Clifton. In both the words and delivery of each poem, I could feel and experience if only remotely the deep pain of being a young Black woman and seeing the oppression caused by our individual and collective racism and sexism. In her poem 1994 Lucille Clifton, read so passionately by Saine Cessay, Clifton writes:
I was leaving my fifty-eighth year
when a thumb of ice
stamped itself hard near my heart
you have your own story
you know about the fears the tears
the scar of disbelief
you know that the saddest lies
are the ones we tell ourselves
you know how dangerous it is
to be born with breasts
you know how dangerous it is
to wear dark skin
A visit to a quilt exhibit at the Brentwood Arts Exchange, a neighboring community, reminded me in vivid colors and pictures the pain-filled lives of the slaves who were the artists’ families. Words tell a story; quilts and other art embody it. Open until April the exhibit is Freedom: Selected Works from the Uhuru Quilters Guild. The quilts are the results of Black women teaching each other quilting, sharing materials and telling their lives and family histories through this art form. Each quilt tells a story and collectively this exhibit makes vivid the deaths and cruelty of the passage from Africa and slavery and the stories of overcoming hate and violence and making a life despite racism.
Reading opportunities are endless as both the classic writings of civil rights leaders and the growing availability of fiction and nonfiction by Black and other authors explore the many dimensions of our racist past, our current battle with white supremacy and the many opportunities to take an anti-racist stand.
While we need to learn from written history, for me and I suspect many others, cultural events like the Greenbelt Black History Culture Program and this quilting exhibit have the power to touch our hearts and deepen our appreciation for both the historic and ongoing oppression of Black people and the strength and bravery of the Black response.
How did you participate in Black History Month this year? What kinds of activities? What did you learn? If not, what gets in the way? Might all of us consider making March and the rest of the year an ongoing opportunity to learn and celebrate Black history and culture? And as we individually and collectively become more intentional over perhaps our largest scar and atrocity, how might we learn about other scars and injuries that need healing for us to advance as a “more perfect union”?