Here’s Why Black History Month Needs A Makeover

problem with black history month
Photo by Rodnae Productions

Black History Month is awkward.

I know, I’m not supposed to say that. As a Black woman fortunate enough to be alive and not living at the poverty level in the United States, Black History Month is supposed to evoke a sense of prideful reflection from me and others like me.

But it doesn’t. At least, not from me.

I love being a Black woman. I love walking into spaces where people expect me to fail (because that’s all they know of Black womanhood) and knocking their socks off by showcasing my intellect, awareness, and disinterest in having my time wasted. And I love that the world still doesn’t know what to do with Black women yet. So it just stares at us in fascination as we make the impossible look easy—emerging from a community rife with dysfunction to become scholars, influencers, stylists, and business owners while simultaneously caring for ourselves and our children, often without help.

Politicians, musicians, and clout chasers alike call on us when it’s time to depict images of struggle, justice, or low vibrational existence, but they won’t dare cast us as the “it” girl or give us a microphone to voice our genuine concerns. The only time anyone shows interest in a Black woman is when she is the mother or sister of a Black man or boy who was slain.

And yet, the message Black History Month touts is that the struggle is over, Black people (including women) have been liberated, and now we must commemorate this by immersing everybody in the oppressive imagery United States historians call “black history” for the duration of February. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks were not the only Black people alive during the 1960s, yet they encompass 90% of Black History Month year after year. We are long overdue a refresh to this tradition.

For starters, can we rename this to Black Heritage Month?

Psychologists and self-help experts will tell anyone seeking a new start that placing distance between themselves and their past will help them achieve it sooner. The past isn’t something to run from, but life happens in the present. Anyone trying to live a present life while wallowing in the details of their past will undoubtedly have a harder time stepping into the latest version of themselves that life requires.

Focusing on the history of unfair treatment Blacks have had to endure in this country serves to remind us all of where this country has been, but it’s hardly a fluffy invitation to claim one’s Blackness with pride and joy. The history of Black people in the United States includes pain, by default, regardless of what Kanye West wants to say. I work hard to manage my pain and trauma every day of the year. Protecting my mental health is essential to my survival in the US. But it becomes especially challenging to do this in February as everyone gets hyper-focused on slavery and Jim Crow laws.

Notice how Latino boys and girls excitedly share popular cuisine from their culture during Hispanic Heritage Month (side note: that’s a problematic name). When Hanukkah comes around, my local news station habitually features Jewish guests who give viewers a crash course on how to play with a Dreidel or recipes for things like potato latkes or matzo ball soup. Asian Heritage Month celebrates the sharpest minds emerging from the Asian American community—an inspiring call to action for other Asian Americans watching. I also see and hear very little about Japanese internment camps during Asian Heritage Month…

Black History Month leaves no room for the deep heritage of Black Americans, much of which has been innovated, engineered and built through the industrious, multidimensional women of the Black community.

Black History Month is hard-wired to patriarchy in the same way the Black Lives Matter movement primarily acknowledges Black male suffering and ignores the suffering of Black women.

Many people—both inside and outside the Black community— believe that Black women “deserve” to suffer because all we do is wear hair weaves, abuse the welfare system, and take up valuable spots in colleges, universities, and offices that should’ve been awarded to more qualified candidates.

Yet, according to the Survey of Business Owners, in 2017, 19% of all employer-based businesses were led by women, while 36.1% of all black-owned companies were female-led. Black women made up 42% of all new companies and have been the fastest-growing demographic to join the entrepreneur space over the last five years. Where are the Black History lessons, specials, or commemorations for THESE stats?

Aside from the patriarchal slant, Black History Month also misses the opportunity to give a much-needed progress report on the state of Blacks in America now, the people for whom this month is supposed to uplift and celebrate each year. We know what we came from, but where we are now is different. This version of Blackness deserves to be shared and celebrated honestly, whether someone is a man or a woman, gay or straight, trans or cis-gendered, 50 years old or 5.

The “triumph” part of the story is the beautiful resilience it takes to be Black in America.

Mastering this resilience is almost a rite of passage for Black Americans. Surviving the oppression that is Black history and living to show up with strength and composure as we build careers in the NOW, raise families in the NOW, influence industries in the NOW, and challenge beauty standards in the NOW—these are the badges of honor Black History Month tries to hand out but fails miserably at year after year.

And why? Because Black History Month is too obsessed with its deep, complex past to take notice of the Black excellence walking among us now. This Black excellence—which includes philosophers, scientists, and doctors—is carving out space to define what Blackness will mean in the future.

Spoiler alert: Blackness will mean many things in the future, just as it does now. Because we are more than dope dealers or public enemies, much more than a segment of votes to pander toward during the election cycle, and we are far greater than what Black History Month reduces us to.

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