Black History Blues
Updated: Feb 4
Every year, celebrating Martin Luther King Jr's birthday feels more complicated. My Dad and I had the chance to talk about this phenomenon the other day.
"I just can't deal with the way people find a way to domesticate King's legacy! This man was a radical!" he said.
I had just experienced this behavior earlier that week. Our conversation validated the anger I felt in that moment. And then there was a broken heartedness when I thought of how hard King fought for the needs of not only Black people, but poor white people, indigenous people, Central and South American people - anyone who did not experience the fullness of their American citizenship and those exploited by it's super power. He fought so hard for all of us, only for those who murdered him to then try to strip him of his legacy. Hearing those who would never have stood with him in the struggle for equality then attempt to appropriate his words to sell their products or their worldview or their campaign. The thought of it makes me feel ill.
And this is how the beginning of Black History Season begins for us in the United States.
Yes, Black History Season, it begins with Martin Luther King's birthday and ends at 11:59 PM on February 29th (unless you're a woman, in which case we just get more specific). Black History Month is indeed a celebration of all that Black people have overcome since many of us were brought to this country in chains and stripped of our humanity. How happy can we act about the circumstances from which we came? How long it has taken us to get where we are now, which is still so far from where we ought to be?
This time of year makes me think of Easter. Many Christian traditions celebrate Easter in phases. We party, then we fast, then there is Holy Week. Holy Week is a time at the end of Lent when we walk through the events that led up to the crucifixion of Christ. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, this is a very dramatic and sensual time, filled with hymns, prayers, Bible readings, but also processions, the ornately decorated epitaphio (a carved structure that represents Christ's tomb), and the cross on which Christ hung.
Black History Month has a similar theme. Leaders like King, Malcolm X, Medger Evers, John Lewis, and so many others gave their lives for the salvation of Black people from the murderous rage of White supremacy. This season is a time where Black people are filled with pride for all that we have accomplished, but then we have to remember what they endured - beatings, firebombs, being spat on in the street, entire communities being burned to the ground by the KKK. And what did they actually accomplish? Sitting in the front of a bus? Getting to vote (a right they had had for 100 years and yet terrorism and unconstitutional state and municipal laws kept Black people away)? Getting to go to the school of their choice? Basic human shit, and we had to die to get there. This is a traumatizing history, and Black History Month has a way of re-triggering many of our ancestral wounds.
What adds insult to injury is when white "people of goodwill" around us want to celebrate the progress of Black people without interrogating what and who we had to progress beyond. Black History Month is not just a time for Black people to reflect, but it should be an invitation for all of us to think of our ancestral and individual role in the struggle of Black people towards experiencing full citizenship. Yesterday, a Black man was murdered by the RPD because someone called them to complain about him doing something that was completely within his rights. Seeing a man carrying a gun in public is disconcerting, but it is not against the law. But the reality is that Black people have and continue to lose their lives at the hands the law for doing much less, even standing in their own home.
We have made so much progress in this backward country, but the finish line continues to elude us.
I believe that we are being misleading when we talk about "celebrating" Black History Month. Much of our history is not worth celebrating, but mourning and grieving. It may be more accurate to say that Black History Month is a time of reflecting. It is a time for us to remember, and even to recover our narratives. Just like with King's legacy, so much of our story has been suppressed and hidden from us. There's not a single day during Black History Month that I don't learn something new about what we as a people have accomplished and endured. It is also a time to take account what we have to show for our labor, and how we can make the future even better.
But what is of the upmost importance during the Black History Season is to create space to feel deeply and honor those feelings. I love us as a people because the lines between joy, pain, pleasure, and grief are not fixed. We dance in the street during funerals and we rage about injustice during the family reunion. We understand that, being human, we can feel many emotions at once, and that expressing this complexity is vital to our mental and emotional heath. We must hold space for one another as we celebrate our victories and mourn our great losses. We must be kind to ourselves when we have to leave a conversation with a white co-worker who asks you to explain to them why they can't touch your hair. And its time to attend to your cravings and desires with love and understanding - whether it's dancing The Wobble or reading The Fire Next Time or eating a Popeye's chicken sandwich.
This year, for me, Black History Month is about loving on myself. It's about loving on my people. It's about not shrinking myself down to a palatable version of who I am, but creating spaces where I can come in my fullness. It's about seeing my ancestors in their full humanity, not in the two dimensional staleness that was served to me in school. It's about allowing the tears to flow or the steam to rise when imagining the pain of families being ripped apart in the breeding farm, by the lynching tree, and by the officer's bullet. Then I will welcome the joy and pride that wells up when I watch Beyonce's Homecoming or Moms4Housing defeat developers to keep their home.
This Black History Month I will live the way my ancestors prayed that I would. I will live free.