As someone who had to take an Introduction to African American History course in college to actually learn more than the few paragraphs of black history that we learn in Elementary and High school, I have come to appreciate any opportunity that presents more learning about the history of my race. Of course, in Kenya I did learn Kenyan history and we didn’t have a month devoted to that as we are all Kenyans there. So in comparison, I find Black History Month to not be enough as a significant portion of history has been lost or hidden (I think hidden is more appropriate because if I could learn a lot more in college, a lot more can be taught at all levels of schooling).
My experience with Black History Month, especially in high school, was that we would discuss the same ten people every year (Martin Luther King Jr, Madame CJ Walker, Rosa Parks, and I am sure you can name the rest). I don’t understand why Black History Month needs a poster boy: MLK and poster girl: Rosa Parks. I think each year we should try to highlight more and more African Americans that we have never heard of, such as Robert Smalls who became a sea captain during the civil war which led President Lincoln to accept black soldiers in the war. I had to go to college to learn about Robert Smalls as well as about the black bourgeoisie and the industrial prison complex which constitutes modern day slavery of minorities who are disproportionally imprisoned as compared to whites (if you don’t believe me read The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander).
This year I celebrated Black History Month by watching I Am Not Your Negro which highlights James Baldwin’s involvement in the civil rights movement and his relationships with the key figures of that time, namely Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers. I also watched Hidden Figures during Christmas which helped me to learn about other black women who contributed to NASA’s advancements (as I already knew about Mae Jemison who was the first black female astronaut and is included in that list of the 10 people we hear about every black history month). Maybe if I had learned about Katherine Johnson, the mathematical genius behind the calculations for the trajectories to the moon, I would have been inspired to choose a career in Math or engineering instead of health sciences. However, the movie was inspiring to me even as a pharmacy major where there are not many black students at my school and it sometimes feel like we have to work twice as hard to get the same acknowledgement. Hidden Figures definitely touched my heart on several levels including the balance of career and family that we women often have to worry about. During moments of wanting to give up, I now tell myself that if these women could achieve what they did in segregation era, I can also find a way.
And that’s exactly why I think learning about other characters in the scheme of black history is so important. We need continuous inspiration and therefore, we must widen the spectrum of black history from the 10 key figures that we always talk about to the infinite number of characters that we can learn about.
I don’t think this is the appropriate time to reveal that I also watched Get Out yesterday and despite the era of a black president, racists do exist and the use of black people as vessels of labor, tools stripped of their humanity, is not new. However, the movie is just so well-written and nuanced that I recommend everyone to watch it. Sure it is a horror film and has nothing to do with black history, except for the fact that similar gruesome things have happened to black people throughout history but I won’t mention which since that might give away the story.
As we are now in March and Black History was quintessentially awarded the shortest month of the year, I do hope that all of you were able to learn something new this year about someone other than the aforementioned 10 figures that we usually reuse and recycle. If not, why not use the rest of the year to do the same as time is in fact relative.