Black Women and Black History Month: Moving beyond February
Growing up, Black History Month was a strict routine. In school, teachers would hang up pictures of famous black people (the majority of whom were men), create an urban-inspired black appreciation program to be held in the auditorium, and then end the month on a high note aka listening to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech to show how far we had come. We had one month of dedicated basic history lessons in black culture and we should be appreciative.
The entire month of activities were bogus in terms of learning real black history. Growing up in the south, the education system was often picky with what information was included in our history books. This was particularly obvious when it came to American History—in some schools in South Carolina, they still teach kids that the South won the war and attempt to humanize slavery. Why would we expect them to teach black history any differently?
Throughout the course of my middle and high school education, I would fill in the holes on my own time about African American History. I attended numerous church programs or local community events where lesser-known black people were recognized. A large part of my discovery was realizing how many women went unacknowledged during this great month of African American pride and celebration. Don’t get me wrong—-it was important to learn about Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Madam CJ Walker and Rosa Parks, but what about Katherine Johnson, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Diane Nash? These women were pivotal to Black culture and American history, but they were barely recognized. Sounds familiar, right?
As technology and social media have evolved, we are finally seeing multiple stories of Black women shine, and not only the recognition of women in the civil rights movement, but NASA space programs, inventors, politicians, business owners, and pioneers in the arts. Movies like “Hidden Figures” that portrayed the stories of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, three African American women who were critical to the success of Americans race to space, or “Selma” where we were introduced to Diane Nash, a prominent leader who worked alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to successfully helped Black Americans get the right to vote. I recently became familiar with Fannie Lou Hamer who I found out about by attending a March on Washington film festival that focused on African Americans who have made tremendous contributions to the world but may not get the necessary recognition. For me, it was sad and somewhat shameful. Why are we just learning about and hearing these inspiring stories?
Black women, unknown to us and to the masses, have paved the way for so many people to succeed but have been systematically erased from academia, history books and classroom lessons. What may be most unfortunate about this act of erasure is that it is often accompanied with the inability of mainstream media and culture to accurately portray black women, our issues, and lift up our voices. We are now the most educated group in America, but our issues are not at the forefront of social justice campaigns that should work toward parity for marginalized groups. Black women historically turn out in numbers to vote (we saw that throughout each midterm and presidential election over the last three decades), and yet, there is no sitting Democrat or Republican Senator that has a black womyn chief of staff. This erasure in academia and relegation to celebrating black culture for only one month a year has contributed to gender and race marginalization against black womyn in ways that we now see have affected how we talk about black women and whether we talk about them at all.
So while we celebrate black history month, we must continue shouting from the rooftops and taking up space in places where we aren’t or weren’t historically welcome and elevate the voices, stories, and struggles of all black womyn.