It is deep in February and that means it is Black History Month. Or at least it’s supposed to be. I grew up in a neighborhood that, over time, slowly became predominately black. As the neighborhood turned, so to do the focus on Black History Month. When I first moved to the suburbs of Chicago, I cannot necessarily remember anything we did in school around the topic. But by the time we got to sixth grade, it was a full on event. There were plays about civil rights leaders, there were assemblies that started and ended with “Lift Every Voice and Sing”, there were tributes to the past, etc. I remember standing in front of my whole school in my mother’s sweeping black skirt with a scarf on my head as I channeled Sojourner, yelling to the heavens “Ain’t I a Woman!” Yes, from the 1st to the 28th, Black History Month was an event.
But now things seem a little… different. I don’t know if it’s a regional thing or because my neighborhood is predominately, well, not black, but I am not getting the sense that Black History Month is still getting the same kind of love. But then it occurs to me: I am an adult, not a school aged child, so of course it seems that way to me now. All of my memories were school based; after all, the real purpose of the month is to teach the children, right? If I want to know whether or not the month is being appropriately recognized, I should probably look at Leila’s school first.
So I ask my pumpkin, “Are you learning anything about Black History Month in school?”, to which she promptly responds, “Black History Month? What’s THAT!?!” Okay, so I guess I have the answer to my question. “Black History Month”, I tell her, “is a month where we learn about all the wonderful and amazing things that black people did and still do that make our country so great.” My precious baby takes a second to think about what I have just told her and says “well I don’t know about that, but if you want to learn about something special, we can read about Groundhog Day!” And with that statement, she presents me with a completely new potential little known black history fact: Maybe Black History Month has quietly slipped into obscurity.
Perhaps Punxsutawney Phil and his groundhog predictions are more relevant today than a tiny little black woman leading folks to freedom. Slavery is over but spring comes every year, right? And for the last few years there’s been a growing debate about whether the month is still even relevant. Even Morgan Freeman called the month ridiculous, and he was God (in a romantic comedy) for Pete’s sake! He said that there is no Black history, only American history, which I wholly agree with. Even Carter G. Woodson himself apparently hoped that at some point, Black History Week (and later, Month) would dissolve into a relevant part of American history. And we have come so far! African-Americans have gone from being barred from the political process to an active part of the political process, to presidential success; from sharecroppers to CEO’s; from deprived of education to esteemed professors and academicians, I could go on. In so many ways, the “dream” has been realized. Maybe the month is an antiquated notion.
But there is a sentence that I cannot get out of my head, and it is not even related to any race bound theme at all: “Do this in remembrance of me…” remembrance. it is the fundamental source of almost every religious tradition, from Passover, to Communion, to just about any other spiritual tradition you can think of. There is something holy, sacred even, about remembrance. By remembering who and what we are, where we come from, we pay homage to ourselves. We celebrate our uniqueness, we honor our identities, we find within ourselves a source of pride that pushes us towards more. We also learn about and are inspired by the strength and beauty of other cultures not our own. We can make each other’s lives richer, not by ignoring the differences between us, but appreciating them all as beautiful. All of this can happen, simply by remembering and encouraging our children to remember. So whether her school does it or not, I am going to teach my baby about Sojourner and Harriet and Nat Turner and DuSable, and her great-aunt who was an aviator in the 1930’s, and her two uncles who helped pioneer Operation Breadbasket in Chicago, and her other uncle who was the first African-American chaplain in the city of Chicago. Because the little known black history fact is that while yes, black history is American history, black history – like every other culture’s history – is also distinctive, which is something to be proud of. And that should never be forgotten.