February is Black History Month and as the month approached, I found myself thinking about what Black History Month means to some of my dear colleagues and friends active in the struggle to confront and dismantle racism. So I reached out to some beloveds and asked them to tell me what Black History Month means to them. Their thoughts and feelings are captured below.
Dr. Rose Sackey-Milligan, a socio-cultural anthropologist and contemplative educator, lives in Springfield, MA. When asked: “What does Black History Month mean to you?”, Rose’s clarity seemed to flow out of her. Thoughtful, pensive, steady, and caring, Rose has been working on racial justice issues for decades. “Black History Month is a time for all US citizens to uplift Blackness,” Rose said, “to bring it to the center of their awareness. It’s a time when we reflect on the horrific past of Black people, their enduring struggles of the present, and the promise of a future when their humanity is genuinely acknowledged.”
I also turned to my colleague, Rev. Dr. L.A. Love, who is Pastor of the Alden Baptist Church in Springfield, MA, where I serve on the Ministerial Team. His words reflect his identity as a powerful change-agent–a role he carries both in the church and in the wider community. “As an African American man living in an urban setting,” Pastor Love told me, “Black History Month is an important and much needed reminder regarding our people’s resilience, while also providing rejuvenation in the fight for social justice, economic liberation, criminal justice reform, and voting rights, among others.”
Pastor Love also reflected on why Black History Month is so important at Alden, “Alden strives to be a multiethnic and multicultural place of worship that values all heritages. However, at it’s genesis, Alden was built upon the vision and faith of Black leaders and became a pillar of hope for the Black community. As such, Black History Month at Alden is a celebration of richness, triumph, and affirmation of what was, what is, and what is still to come for the Black community.” As a member of the clergy at Alden, I know well that in the years before COVID when we were worshiping together in the Sanctuary, church members came to church in traditional clothing during all of February. The Kente cloth dresses, shirts, skirts, scarves, and ties reflected the pride and delight church members felt about honoring Black History Month. It was colorful, beautiful, and celebratory.
Speaking as the father of three daughters, Pastor Love said this about what Black History Month means to his family: “As the father of beautiful princesses that were presumably born with two non-ceasing hardships against them, being Black and female, Black History Month is a highly anticipated time of engagement, education, and empowerment. We dive into the history of our ancestors and highlight strong, courageous, intelligent, intuitive Black women who played roles in helping our people overcome hardships so our people could continue to rise and fly high over practices and prejudices meant to keep our people enslaved and/or entrapped. Black History Month inspires our ladies to continue to prepare to step up and take hold of the baton passed from the ancestors and run their leg of the race.” That to me is a striking endorsement of the power of Black History Month to one African American family.
What intrigued me in my discussions with these local thought leaders-community activists was the range of reactions I heard when I brought up Black History Month. Tanisha Arena, community leader and Executive Director of Arise for Social Justice in Springfield, MA, said this about Black History Month: “Pretend 28 days is enough? Black history is American history and it did not start when my ancestors reached the shores of Jamestown in 1619. As this history comes under attack and is weaponized, it is more important than ever to speak these truths.” I can almost hear Tanisha’s strong voice saying these words on the steps of City Hall where she often speaks out with vision and power about issues that relate to the Black community in Springfield and beyond.
Sister Nobuntu Ingrid Askew, cultural activist, theater-maker, Executive Director of Crossing the Waters Institute for Cultural Exchange, and mother of two, who lives in Amherst, MA, offered a different perspective and gave me much food for thought. When asked about the significance of Black History Month to her, Ingrid said, “Black history is American history! And to be designated one month out of the year to commemorate the Black experience and accomplishments has always been an insult to me. Black people built this country and suffered greatly for it. Giving a month to honor a people who are still treated as second class is disingenuous.”
Clearly, members of the African American community have different responses to and feelings about Black History Month. As an anti-racism educator since the mid-1980s, I have been aware that Black History Month is embedded in white history year–and that needs to change.
Before closing these reflections on Black History Month from various community leaders, I want to include an exchange I had with Phyllis Labanowski, an anti-racism activist artist who lives in Amherst, MA. When asked about her thoughts on Black History Month, Phyllis replied, “I could not say it any better than what the Guerilla Girls, an anonymous group of feminist artists, put on billboards at the entrances to major U.S. cities in the 1990s: Guerilla Girls Pop Quiz: If February is Black History Month and March is Women’s History Month, what happens the rest of the year?
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